The Times West Virginian

February 16, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU trio of Staten, Harris, Henderson among the best

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — There was an on-line mention in the lead up to Saturday night’s West Virginia invasion of Texas that the Mountaineers were bringing with them in what is, perhaps, the most underrated backcourt in college basketball today.

On the surface, that might appear to be the truth but just by the very fact that it now is being written about and talked about as the most underrated would have you believe that the conversation is lagging behind reality.

This backcourt of Juwan Staten, Eron Harris and Terry Henderson WAS the most underrated but now, as the team has begun growing into itself and enjoying success, it might be more to the point to question whether or not it just might be among the best in college basketball today.

Certainly, if Henderson is to develop down the stretch into a reliable scorer able to knock down jump shots there is no one with the potential this backcourt has to dominate and win games on its own.

Staten realized it much earlier this year, saying just after the new year began:

“I think we’re a team that’s kind of underrated We have a dangerous team this year—a lot of 3-point threats—and we’re still getting better.”

The reason the backcourt was underrated early was not only because the players involved were low profile in this era of ESPN hye and recruiting mania. These weren’t kids faced with a decision of jumping from high school to the NBA when they came out.

Quite the contrary.

Staten began his career playing at Dayton, a mid-sized school with a nice basketball history but not exactly Ohio State.

Harris was little different, not an object of affection within his

own state, a state that offers some highly touted basketball options in Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame and, yes, Indiana State even, a school that can recruit off the legacy of Larry Bird having played there.

Henderson, like Harris, left a pretty fair basketball state to play in West Virginia, that being North Carolina, and we need not go beyond North Carolina and Duke and Wake Forest and North Carolina State and stay-at-home options to give you an understanding of how he was rated.

The three of them all merged at WVU a year ago, Harris and Henderson as freshmen and Staten playing his first season after sitting out his transfer year. It was not only a get-to-know-each-other year but a get to know the Big 12 year while playing on a basketball team that was totally miscast.

Even a coach as astute as Bob Huggins had underestimated what this backcourt was capable of while overrating a front court with Deniz Kilicli and Aaric Murray. Huggins featured muscle and inside power in a league that had a totally different style of play, one built more toward the backcourt he possessed but had not yet developed.

This season, though, Huggins opted to recreate his team in a different image, the perfect move to reach the team’s potential, but a move that required yet another getting-to-know-you period of adjustment early in the season.

Without anything resembling front-court weapons and with Henderson, Gary Browne and Remi Dibo still trying to find how they best could operate with the catalyst, Staten, and the scorer, Harris, a number of close games were squandered away.

Just two of three wins among them would have turned this into a certain tournament team instead of one that went into Texas on Saturday night playing for its NCAA life, in need of a strong finish on the season just to qualify for a tournament which it had become a good enough team to be anywhere but on the bubble.

What’s more, they had done this without an effective front court that would have turned it from a good team to a great one. Put in a rebounder and/or a shot blocker – such as two players who were expected to play this season but failed to qualify academically – and you almost certainly would have had a contender for the Big 12 title, as the team developed.

Staten, of course, had gone from a kid who came into the season with everyone wondering if he was capable of running the team into one of – if not, which Marcus Smart’s latest run-in with the Big 12 bylaws – the leading candidates for Big 12 Player of the Year.

Huggins says that he believed in Staten even as he was struggling last year.

“He’s probably as fast and as athletic as anybody at that position,” Huggins said. “I thought that a year ago, but it took a little while for him to understand what we wanted do.

“(This year) he has really bought in. He really tries to understand what you want done.”

Staten is at or near the top of just about every statistical category in the Big 12 this year, including scoring (second), field goal percentage (fourth), assists (first), assist-to-turnover ratio (second), steals (eighth) and minutes played (first).

There is no comparison to the play from a year ago, averaging nearly 11 more points a game and shooting almost 20 percent better form the floor while already having surpassed his assist total a year ago and 100 for the season.

His new-found ability to hit from the outside, then break down a defense off the drive while either taking the ball to the hoop with no one able to stop him with the new hand-checking rules that are in place, as created a far more free-wheeling offense for WVU.

Once he goes into the lane the world is his to control, for he can go the basket, pull up and jump shoot or hit either Harris or Henderson.

Harris is averaging 17.4 points a game to rank fourth in the conference while ranking second in 3-point field goals made, second in free throw percentage and fourth in 3-point percentage.

Henderson, after a shaky start, has become a third option, scoring in double figures in 10 of 13 games going into the Texas game, keep the defense from doubling on Harris or Staten.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel