By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
When the preseason eventually ends and coach Bob Huggins takes his West Virginia basketball team into its second Big 12 season, his most valuable player may wind up being someone you would never expect it to be.
Judging from last year’s performances, one would lean toward either sophomore Eron Harris or sophomore Terry Henderson, but it is looking more and more as if one of last year’s most disappointing players, point guard Juwan Staten, may be the man who makes the Mountaineers go.
No, Staten will not be a major scorer, but his role will be far more important than that as a key player in the defense and as the team leader.
“Juwan has done a great job of trying to understand what we need done and therefore he can help guys,” Huggins said. “He has figured out how hard you have to play. He’s leading by example. You can’t just say I’m going to be the leader and expect everyone else to do it. You have to do it yourself.”
This leadership thing has not just happened by accident, nor is it simply bestowed upon him because he is one of the most experienced players on the team, a junior who played a year at Dayton before transferring to WVU, sat out a redshirt season and then played last year for Huggins.
In fact, in mid-season last year, Staten was benched because he wasn’t being much of a leader out of his point guard spot.
“That’s definitely something I wanted to work on this year. My whole life, since I’ve been playing, I’ve been kind of recognized as a leader. For our coaches to say last year that we didn’t have any leadership really struck home for me,” he admitted.
He realized that he had to make some changes.
“I did some stuff over the offseason — evaluation, looked at a lot of game film and tape, and thought about things I could do this year to separate myself as a leader,” he said.
The film he analyzed was not just of his own play and demeanor, but of the entire team.
“I looked at that film, tried to see what we need to do to be successful this year and I tried to come in and help the guys out because I knew we had a lot of new players this year, a lot of freshmen,” he revealed.
“I met with the coaches a lot during the offseason to find out what they wanted to stress with the players. Then I came out and tried to do that.”
Last season, of course, was a disaster, Huggins’ first losing season since his first year as a coach. Staten started only 21 of 31 games, averaged just 7.6 points per game and shot only 37.6 percent without ever hitting a 3, going 0-for-9, which allowed defenders to back off him and offer help inside.
So Staten knew he had to change his game as well as his approach.
“A lot of people talk to me about making 3s but the thing is, I’ve made 3s my whole life. I said it last year and I’ll say it again this year — when you are not shooting really well you don’t want to take a lot of shots that far away from the basket. You want to try to get as close as possible,” he said, trying to explain his lack of attempts.
“I have been working on my shooting a lot in the offseason and I’ve definitely improved in my shooting. I’m looking forward to games to show people how hard I’ve been working on my shooting. I’m definitely looking forward to taking 3s this year.”
More important, though, is the leadership role.
“From talking with the coaches and talking with my dad, who shares a lot with me because he knows a lot about the game, I can’t worry about the things I can’t control. The only thing I can control is the improvement I made.
“I knew we were going to have players leave and new players come in. The biggest thing I worked on was me, getting myself right for the season. I was just trying to sharpen my skills,” he continued.
He worried, however, about the transition with so many players like Deniz Kilicli, Jabarie Hines and Keaton Miles gone.
“I thought it would be a rough transition but it hasn’t been because the guys who have come in play extremely hard, they are all good guys, willing to learn, eager to learn, and that has made the transition smoother,” he said. “They are all skill guys and have been taught well at the schools they’ve been at.”
“He’s just better,” Huggins said. “Our defense is way, way better when he’s on the floor. He’s tried to learn. He understands rotations. He’s obviously gifted. He gets from one place to the other quicker than most guys but he gets to the right place now. Last year his mentality was conserve himself. That goes back to being a star in high school.”
Now he’s playing hard and using his head.
“He’s really trying to understand what we want done,” Huggins explained. “When you are going to have the ball as much as he will, you have to know who is going to come open and when they will come open and if they don’t come open why and what that opens up.
“I think it hit him last year in the offseason that the more you know, the better player you are going to be. The guys who are great passers are great passers because they know who is going to come open and when.”
NOTES: Still no word on Jonathan Holton’s eligibility and it’s looking more and more like he won’t be ready to play when the season begins ... WVU played a scrimmage against Ohio State on Saturday, and while Huggins could give no specifics he said the team “competed” ... WVU faces Fairmont State in an exhibition at the Coliseum at 7 p.m. Monday.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.