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College Basketball: Previewing the Mountaineers

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Adapting to the Big 12 was not easy for West Virginia University.

The football team has yet to win 10 games since switching conferences in 2012. The men’s basketball team went a combined 30-35 in its first two seasons in the Big 12. About the only team to have immediate success in the Big 12 has been the women’s soccer team, which has won the regular season conference title in all five possible seasons as well as two postseason conference championships.

In the last couple years, WVU basketball has figured out how to contend in the Big 12.

It all started with a defensive change by head coach Bob Huggins, a change so drastic that it took on a life of its own.

WVU becomes “Press Virginia” University each winter.

While most schools sag back defensively and wait until their opponents reach half court to begin playing defense, the Mountaineers attack from the first inbound pass. No matter whether West Virginia had just dunked or scored on a contested layup, the Mountaineers immediately go to work defensively.

With five players on the court, WVU uses all in the offensive end. A taller forward defends the inbound pass, two guards defend the opponent’s guards that are trying to receive the inbound pass, and the final two players (a guard and a forward or two forwards) stand at half court to defend a long bomb pass.

When the pass gets in, the Mountaineers double-team the ballhandler. Sure, it’s easy to avoid the press with a pass to the one man that is going to be open because of the double-team, but how can a ballhandler concentrate when two defenders have their hands in his face and are swiping at the ball?

It’s a strategy that’s led to WVU leading the nation in steals in back-to-back years and has the Mountaineers in contention to win the Big 12. They were picked to finish second in the conference in 2016-17.

A year after falling to Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament Championship Game, West Virginia believes in this year’s team even after losing several major contributors. Walking double-double Devin Williams (13.3 points per game, 9.5 rebounds per game) left a year early to pursue his NBA dream, only to end up in Australia. Leading scorer Jaysean Paige (13.7 PPG) and defensive stopper Jonathan Holton (8.9 PPG and 7.6 RPG) both graduated. WVU is without three of its five starters last season.

There’s still plenty of hope for this season. The Mountaineers have six incoming freshmen to add to its returning core. Despite the three big losses, WVU still earned the Associated Press’s No. 20 ranking in its preseason poll.

“We're going to play a lot of people, so they're going to play,” Huggins said about the freshmen at Big 12 Media Day. “Our two bigs are going to play, whether it's the 6'10" freshman, whatever he is, 6'8", freshmen, they're going to play. I hope we can get into other people's bench and make them play guys that they haven't played a lot and just a cumulative effect of what we do.”

However, Kansas is still the roadblock for the Mountaineers. The Jayhawks have won 12 consecutive regular season Big 12 titles, won the conference championship seven times, and won the national championship in 2008.

Kansas owns West Virginia all time. Since first facing each other in 2013, the Jayhawks have won six of nine games. Despite that, Kansas is winless in its last three visits to the WVU Coliseum. The Jayhawks are still the top dog, but the Mountaineers have found a dent in the king’s armor.

“Kansas' dominance is really -- it comes down to three things: They've got a great coach, they've got great players, and they never lose at home,” Huggins said. “Until we start beating them at home -- and we had chances, we had chances. We missed free throws and a lot of crazy things happened at Allen Fieldhouse now. So we end up losing. If we had beaten them, I think somebody else would have had a chance to maybe tie for the league championship or whatever.”

After struggling at point guard last season, junior Jevon Carter will start their again this season, but his responsibilities may decrease this year. If moved to shooting guard, Carter will be playing the position that helped him make his initial mark at WVU his freshman year. With then-senior Juwan Staten running the offense, Carter rolled off of screens to take open shots. Carter averaged more points per game as a sophomore (9.5) then as a freshman (8.1), but Carter also played less freshman year.

Whether Carter is at point guard or shooting guard, look for him to take over Paige’s role as the team’s go-to scorer. Carter should easily average at least 12 points per game and continue generating steals (team high 1.7 steals per game last season).

Though he has been a part of the WVU basketball program for a year, James Bolden has yet to suit up in a regular season game for the Mountaineers. That will end Nov. 11.

After missing all of 2015-16 with a torn ACL, Bolden begins 2016-17 as a redshirt freshman. Bolden is a point guard, but will not replace Carter as the starting point guard yet. Freshman rarely start on Huggins teams, especially at the beginning of the season.

As a senior at Holmes High School in Kentucky, Bolden was more of a scorer than a facilitator; he averaged 19.2 points per games and 3.9 assists per game. Bolden won’t score that high in the Big 12, but can develop in Huggins’ pass-heavy offense that stresses finding the open man.

On paper, WVU should win at least 10 of its first 12 non-conference games. That total could rise to 11 if the Mountaineers face Florida State on Nov. 25 instead of Temple in the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament. The Seminoles just missed making the AP preseason poll and added two four-star recruits as well as Jonathan Isaac, a five-star recruit from IMG Academy.

The other difficult game will be a road game against Virginia on Dec. 3. The Cavaliers defeated WVU in last season thanks to a fast-paced offense that got around the press and gave the Mountaineers their first loss of 2015-2016.

WVU may lose a couple of games, but its press will continue to frustrate opponents and the Mountaineers could rise to at least No. 15 before conference play begins.

Making a run at Kansas depends on how freshmen like Bolden fit in and if Carter can step into Paige’s role as the go-to scorer. Paige replaced Staten and helped the Mountaineers take a crucial step forward in 2015-16. Huggins needs a similar player to step up in 2016-17 not only to beat Kansas, but to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

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