Following an early first round exit in the NCAA Tournament hopes still remain high for the Mountaineers.
But they’ll be without double-double machine Devin Williams, who declared a year early for the NBA Draft. Without Williams, there is a huge void in the frontcourt as he paved his way to a Big 12 best 16 double-doubles.
Here is how the team stacks up heading into next season:
As stated with Williams going professional a year early, the Mountaineers lose one of the Big 12’s top players at forward. He averaged 13.3 points and a team-high 9.5 rebounds per game, bullying his way inside throughout the season.
Now it’s time for life without Williams. Only Elijah Macon found enough time at Williams’ spot off the bench, and he will have to be the heir to one of the program’s best under the Huggins era.
Macon will need to improve as he struggled offensively for much of his sophomore season, converting less than half his free throws and scoring 4.5 points per game.
They’ll also need to replace offensive rebounding sensation Jonathan Holton down low. Holton’s 3.6 offensive boards per game were a team-high, leading WVU to a No. 2 national ranking in that category.
Behind Macon, there isn’t much returning depth to fill the void. Brandon Watkins is the only other big-man returning, but a knee injury hindered his production last year.
Watkins didn’t make his first appearance until December 5 and only found his way onto the court an average of 5.4 minutes per game. They will expect newcomers from this year’s recruiting class to immediately contribute.
But the possibility of graduate transfers entering the program remains a possibility. Two of them have recently announced they have WVU on their lists, according to Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports, featuring forwards Merrill Holden (Louisiana Tech) and Anthony Livingston (Arkansas State).
Livingston was the focal point of Arkansas State’s attack, averaging more than 15 points and nine rebounds in each of the last two seasons. He was a Second Team All-Sun Belt Conference honoree both years.
Holden’s contributions weren’t as significant, but they would be greatly benefited to a position in need of more depth. Holden posted 8.1 points and five rebounds in 23 minutes, a contest for Louisiana Tech this past season.
However, getting both or just one of the two remains a difficult task as WVU is already at the limit with 13 scholarship players on its roster. That means one current Mountaineer would need to transfer/leave the program in order for either Holden or Livingston to be on scholarship.
Sophomore Esa Ahmad and senior Nathan Adrian are also returning forwards and will receive more playing time. Adrian dialed it up a notch as the season progressed, and Ahmad showed more flashes of his previous top 100 recruiting ranking later in the year.
The guard position appears to have the least question marks for WVU. Although Jaysean Paige is gone after earning his way to an All-Big 12 selection, plenty of experience returns.
Tarik Phillip returns for his senior season and is expected to garner a leadership role for the Mountaineers. He often became a key piece in many of WVU’s 13 conference victories off the bench, scoring in double-figures 11 times during that span.
Phillip was one of two players to shoot above 40 percent from the three-point line, and his offensive prowess didn’t go unnoticed. With the depth in the backcourt, Phillip might find his way into the starting five most games as Huggins could implement a three-guard lineup.
Juniors Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles will also see more playing time after starting in nearly every game last season. Both are among the team’s top defenders, with Carter’s 1.7 steals per game ranking first on the team.
Miles always improved his play against top-tier competition, holding Wooden Award honoree Buddy Hield to six points on one-of-eight shooting in the 69-67 victory over Oklahoma in the Big 12 semifinals.
Former junior college star Teyvon Myers also looks to provide more scoring after struggling on the offensive end last year, averaging 2.4 points and shooting 35.6 percent from the field.
Plus, Beetle Bolden is healthy after tearing his ACL during practice prior to last season, garnering a redshirt season during his first year on campus. Bolden’s often recognized for his scoring abilities, registering 10.7 points per game during a summer trip to the Bahamas.
It’s not a highly-touted class featuring any of the nation’s top 100 players, but it’s one that could find playing time right away.
Wheeling native Chase Harler was named the Gatorade West Virginia Player of the Year in 2016, averaging 25 points and six rebounds as he guided Central Catholic to a 23-3 record as a senior.
Alongside Harler in the class is fellow West Virginia native and guard Brandon Knapper, a 6-foot-1 talent from South Charleston High School. Knapper was a First Team All-State selection for a third straight year, scoring 28.7 points per game.
However, Knapper is attending prep school for one year and won’t be on campus until 2017. It’s likely he would have redshirted regardless, and WVU is already at the limit for scholarship players on the team.
Big men Maciej Bender and Sagaba Konate also stood out during their high school careers, rounding out the class. Both are expected to receive early playing time in search of adding more bodies near the rim.
Early and Don’t Trust Prediction:
Losing Devin Williams is a serious blow to a team once considered a possible top 10 team heading into next season.
Except you can’t count out a team coached by Bob Huggins. It’ll be difficult to replicate last year’s regular season success, but if everything comes together and players step up in the frontcourt, a deeper NCAA Tournament run is likely.
Huggins will find a way, just watch.
The guards will pave the way, at least for the most part, leading another successful campaign of tenacious defense. Beetle Bolden will emerge as the scoring threat fans hope to see, Elijah Macon will make enough improvements to not make you miss Williams so much.
And offensive production will improve, an aspect the Mountaineers struggled to find last year. Mark a third place finish and the program’s second Sweet Sixteen run in the last three years.