The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

April 2, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Rare optimism surrounds WVU for next season

MORGANTOWN — The pain from the past basketball season has turned to numbness at West Virginia University, a 17-16 team that failed to reach the NCAA Tournament or advance in the NIT and was stunned when its No. 2 scorer was transferring, as it heads into the off-season.

With all of that facing the Mountaineer team as it goes into the off-season, it seems rather strange that it heads there with far more optimism than you ever would expect from a team that has managed to win only half of its 98 games over the past three seasons.

It began with an announcement that was not fully unanticipated, but yet that brought a sense of relief to all concerned, Juwan Staten announcing that he would not submit his name into the NBA draft this year but instead return for his senior season at West Virginia.

In a collegiate sense, this was Peyton Manning announcing that he would be back for another season, reducing greatly the angst that came from Eron Harris’ journey into the unknown.

Interestingly, during a recent appearance on MetroNews “Sportsline,” Staten was gushing with expectations for next year, a chance for him to turn himself from a marginal NBA draft selection into a lottery pick but, as important on a statewide level, about the team’s chances to get him his first NCAA Tournament experience.

“We didn’t finish the season the way we wanted to. We definitely wanted to make it to the NCAA Tournament. I haven’t been to the tournament since I’ve been in college, so that’s something that kind of bothers me,” he said.

It would bother any athlete with the skills Staten possesses, for while there are many stages upon which college basketball is played, none can stand up to March Madness.

That is the second season and, in reality, the season that leaves the lasting memories.

Staten, perhaps, would have taken his chances leaving if he did not really feel confident that the upcoming edition has the skills to reach the NCAA, even without Harris.

In truth, the skills were on hand throughout this season, but they could not accessed due to academic deficiencies.

Next year, Jonathan Holton and Elijah Macon will be eligible and, from hearing Staten talk about them, you can only wonder what might have been had they been able to join Staten and Harris and Devin Williams this year on a team that went 9-9 and finished sixth in Big 12 play.

“Jon is just a ball of energy,” he said of Holton on the radio show. “He’s pretty much a glue guy, basically going to be the face of our defense. He controls the paint — anything that comes in there he’s either altering the shot or blocking it.”

If you think of what was missing on this latest West Virginia team it was defense and presence in the paint, someone who could make you pay if you beat a guard off the dribble, someone to grab a rebound.

But Holton is more than that, much more.

We saw some of it very early last season on the opening night of practice when they held their annual scrimmage in the Coliseum, Holton athletically going up and down the court and doing his thing. And, if his shot was off that night, one must remember it was the first day of basketball season.

Holton is more than just a defender.

“He can score on offense with his back to the basket, and he’s a great 3-point shooter. He’s everywhere. He’s always on the glass or involved in every play,” Staten said.

That is not something that Staten has simply heard about. Holton was able to practice with WVU this season, and all year long the word filtering out of practices was that Holton was the best player on the court … and that included Staten.

Macon is a different style of player, and one who could not practice with the team this past year, but one Staten is familiar with as a one-time AAU teammate.

“He’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever played with. He’s versatile — he can go outside and hit some jump shots, he can take his man off the dribble, and he can play with his back to the basket,” Staten explained.

He probably can ride a unicycle and spin plates on a stick like the popular halftime entertainer Red Panda, too, but coach Bob Huggins will prefer to have him in for his halftime sermon.

The point is that Huggins now will have his type of team.

In Staten he has a slick point guard who seldom turns the basketball over and can score. He can pair him with Terry Henderson, who has the potential to score as much as Harris did while providing more defense and rebounding, using Gary Browne as an experienced backup at either spot.

And up front he can start both Holton and Macon along with Devin Williams, if that’s the way he wants to go, or with Remi Dibo, who gives a chance to add a 3-point shooter to the mix.

Staten was given a chance to predict the starting five for next season; this was what he saw:

“I’d definitely slide Elijah and Jon in there because they give us a lot on both ends of the floor. We’re noticeably better with them in, especially on the defensive end. We’ll be more athletic and able to run. And then I’d probably slide Remi (Dibo) in there too, just because he’s a great player when he’s surrounded by great players. He gets to do what he does. It kind of allows him to be a specialist.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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