By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
There is an old saying about a chain being only as strong as its weakest link, a saying that all too often can be tied to success in athletics.
This is especially true with this year’s West Virginia Mountaineers, a team that escaped a rugged non-conference schedule with an 8-5 record, which included nary a victory over a team from a power conference.
The reason that was so, even though this edition has a number of solid players in Juwan Staten, Eron Harris and Terry Henderson, is because it had to rely far too heavily on freshmen recruits who were being asked to run before they walk in college basketball terms.
Now the non-conference portion of the season is over and if WVU is to put together an acceptable run in Big 12 play, it will be because the freshmen figured it out.
Quite simply, WVU will be as good as its freshmen.
With Staten, Harris and Henderson, Bob Huggins knows what he is getting on any given night, all of them possessing a track record upon which one can rely.
Freshmen, though, are another story, their immaturity leaving them vulnerable to wide mood swings and their game still inconsistent enough that you hope for this or that out of them rather than expect it.
The final few games of non-conference play gave hope, however, that the freshmen are catching on and growing into their roles, ready to take their place alongside the veteran players.
Devin Williams, of course, has started the whole season and exhibited enough talent to warrant it despite his mistakes.
Brandon Watkins showed off his skills against Marshall and followed that up with a solid effort against Purdue, giving WVU a player who not only can play defense around the rim and rebound, but a player who allows them to move Williams to a forward, for playing 16 feet or so from the hoop and facing it seems to be where he is at his best.
And then, in that latest victory over William & Mary, Nathan Adrian shed his freshman beanie and did what he was brought in to WVU to do … made a string of 3-point shots while playing hard on the boards and being willing to dive to the floor.
He did all of that despite suffering a broken nose in the game, displaying the kind of toughness and determination that could make him a special player before the season is out.
“I was always taught to play as hard as I can, no matter what. That’s what I do,” he said in the aftermath of canning four of five 3-point shots and setting a career-high of 16 points.
Adrian impressed Huggins with his determination, but more important, he impressed his teammates. Nothing is harder for a freshman to do than win over the confidence and admiration of teammates.
“I saw a guy who came in at first who was quiet,” said point guard Juwan Staten. “We all knew he could play and could shoot the ball well. Now he’s adding other things to his game. He’s rebounding, hitting the offensive glass, diving on the floor and showing he’s a tough kid.
“I see him maturing a lot as well as hitting his shots and keeping his head up when things aren’t going his way.”
The trick now is to do it consistently … not just Adrian but also Watkins.
Things get tougher now as you move into conference play, the Big 12 being the leading conference in RPI ratings in the country, which means no more playing teams like William & Mary over which you possess a great athletic advantage.
Now the freshmen must cut back on the mistakes, for little mistakes against non-conference opponents don’t make much of a difference. Against Kansas they become baskets at the other end or fouls that quickly put you on the bench.
In the Big 12 you not only must play smart, but you must also play Smart — Marcus Smart, the Oklahoma State star who may just be the best player in the country.
“As freshmen, they are always going to have ups and downs, but it’s about having more ups than downs,” Staten said. “I think that’s what we’re seeing now. We’re asking a lot of our freshmen, especially with the system we play. It’s not really an easy system to grasp.
“They are embracing it. They are not crying about it. They are not getting frustrated. They are just going out and giving their all … and that’s all we can ask for.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel