It’s that magical time of year again: tournament time. The month in which everyone from Sally in accounting to the leader of the free world gets to pretend to be a college basketball expert; a predictor of the most unpredictable sporting event this side of the Puppy Bowl (my money is always on the shih tzu terrier mix). As is often the case with West Virginia University sports, this year’s tournament comes with some good news and some bad news.
On the positive side, the Bob Huggins has gotten his team back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2012, quite a stretch for a program that had only missed out on the tournament once in the seven years prior. The other positive takeaway is that this marks the first tournament trip for all but one of the Mountaineers. Gary Browne was a freshman the last time WVU went dancing, while most of the players taking the floor on Friday were more worried about who they’d be dancing with at prom that year than any team’s bracket seeding. This also marks the first NCAA tournament appearance for senior guard Juwan Staten, who was suiting up for Dayton in March of 2012. I’m not so sure that this year’s Mountaineer squad was a popular preseason pick to crack the field of 68, but thanks to an impressive regular season, Huggins’ young roster will get the kind of valuable postseason experience that Staten was never afforded.
Of course, there are also some not-so-positive notes about how the brackets shook out the Mountaineers. For one thing, they got pegged with a No. 5 seed. That’s problematic for two reasons. First of all, the 5-12 matchups are always a sexy upset pick, and the Mountaineers have seemingly drawn the short straw as the most likely to be ousted by their lower-seeded foe. Bilas thinks so, Lunardi thinks so, even the President thinks Buffalo is going to put an early end to the Madness for WVU. If the Mountaineers do survive the 5-12 trap, what they would have to look forward to is a game against No. 4 Maryland (one of just three teams to take down No. 1 Wisconsin) and then a date with the one team that even the Philadelphia 76ers don’t want to play, the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats.
But this is tournament time! Let’s not dwell on the negatives and what-ifs. Instead, let’s turn our focus to what the Mountaineers need to do to keep Marching.
The first, and most obvious, answer to that question is that WVU has to continue to play its brand of basketball: that means turnovers and rebounds. Those have been the keys to everything Huggins has been able to do with this group. Nation-leading numbers in steals and offensive rebounds haven’t just led to their cool “Press Virginia” nickname, but an average of 15 more shots per game than opponents. Those extra chances are absolutely critical to a team that shoots 41% from the field, good for 282nd nationally. If West Virginia wants to play past this weekend, it will have to continue to find ways to manufacture offense.
The next thing to watch is the play of WVU’s young backcourt. After weeks of rest, many would hope that Staten and Browne will be back to their usual selves, but that’s far from a given. In the absence of their senior leaders, several Mountaineer guards truly took their games to another level. Freshman Daxter Miles, Jr., who has been starting all season, became the go-to perimeter threat in the last four Staten-less games. Miles, who has averaged just 7 points per game and 35% from beyond the arc this season, went for 15 points per game with the seniors sidelined, shooting a staggering 52% from the floor and 44% from three-point land. Another freshman, Jevon Carter, admittedly struggled adjusting to life as the full-time point guard. After going for 25 points in his first career start at Baylor, Carter failed to top eight points in any of the last three bouts. His defense never sagged though, and he actually improved on his team-leading two steals per game. With the return of Staten and Browne, Carter will get to slide back into the sixth-man role that he exceled in all season long. Sophomore Tarik Phillip and junior Jaysean Paige also saw an increase in floor time down the stretch, and both proved to be adequate backups at the end of a crowded WVU bench. If the Mountaineers can keep Marching, those four guys will play a big part in it.
The final, and most important key to tournament success for the Mountaineers is staying out of foul trouble. That’s been a problem which has plagued Press Virginia all season long, as the team has committed an alarming 23 personal fouls per game, leading the nation in that unpleasant category. An important number to keep in mind is that the Mountaineers are 19-0 in games where they have held opponents to 69 points or less. They already do well to limit opponent’s possessions with the aforementioned steals and rebounds, but keeping teams off the free throw line would make this WVU defense much more efficient. Besides keeping the opposition scoring down, staying out of foul trouble would keep key players on the floor. The only reason I haven’t mentioned names like Devin Williams or Jonathan Holton is because you can never be sure how long either is going to remain in the game. If both can keep themselves out of foul trouble, particularly in the early stages of games, there’s no question whether they’ll be able to have a huge impact, but it’s also no secret that the best ability either can display in this tournament is availability.
It really has been fun watching this team play all season, and there’s no reason why March should be any different. If the Mountaineers can just stay true to the things that got them here, they could put a huge stamp on what has already been a season to remember.