When West Virginia was blown out in its season-opener against Texas A&M – a team that won 16 games and missed the NCAA tournament last season – it would have seemed far-fetched to predict that, by mid-January, the Mountaineers would be ranked second in the country.
Yet here we are. West Virginia hasn’t lost since, and it’s throttled good teams in the process: Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Kansas State, to name a few. All have a shot at the NCAA tournament.
“They [West Virginia’s coaches] told us if we didn’t bring it against Texas A&M, we’d get blown out, and that’s what happened,” star guard Jevon Carter said of the team’s mentality. “We know we don’t want that feeling again any time soon. So we just go out there, buy in and give it our all.”
Bob Huggins has a done a masterful job, even by his lofty standards. Since taking over in 2007, Huggins has won 25 or more games five times. His best team was the 2009-10 group, which reached the Final Four.
You likely know the story by know, but a quick refresher: after that season, West Virginia had a tough four years, failing to win 20 games three times. Then Press Virginia happened. The Mountaineers won 25 games in 2014-15 and forced turnovers on a whopping 28 percent of their opponent’s possession, tops in the country.
“Sometimes, when he [Huggins] starts yelling at you, you want to say your side, but your side never really matters,” Carter joked. Then a dose of wisdom: “It’s not about how he’s saying it, it’s about what he’s saying.”
Also true: no program has embodied the “it’s not about the name on the back of the jersey, but the one on the front” sports cliché more than West Virginia. That’s a blessing and a curse. It’s good because the Mountaineers are reliable – no matter who leaves and who arrives every year, you know they’re going to succeed. They’ll force a ton of turnovers and gobble up a ton of offensive rebounds, and win because of it. It doesn’t take NBA-caliber talent to play that style.
A downside: sometimes, teams win simply because they have the best player on the floor. West Virginia has had a lot of good players through the years, but could rarely say that.
It can now. Because if it wasn’t for Trae Young (we’ll get to the irony of this later) – Carter would be the Big 12 Player of the Year.
He’s having an absurd statistical season, and the stats probably don’t do his full value justice. Carter is averaging 16.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 3.6 steals while shooting 40 percent from 3. It says a lot about your worth as a player when the least impressive thing you do is average 16.1 points.
It’s also impressive when you’re the No. 2 team’s top scoring option, yet you’re better defensively than offensively. Young is the clear Naismith frontrunner; nobody has really had an answer for him. But in West Virginia’s 89-76 win over Oklahoma, Carter won the matchup. Sure, Young scored 29 points. But he shot 36 percent from the floor and had eight turnovers. It was a team effort, but it was spearheaded by Carter, perhaps the most tenacious on-ball defender in the country. Young usually looks like he’s playing a different sport than the other nine guys on the floor. Carter brought him back to reality.
Asked if he got up for the challenge of facing Young: “Definitely,” Carter said. “But that’s every night in the Big 12. I feel like we have the best guards there are. So that’s every night. If you don’t bring you’re A-game, it will show.”
Dive into West Virginia’s statistical profile, and this team isn’t much different than previous Press Virginia teams. It forces turnovers on 27.6 percent of opponents’ possessions; 28 is usually the magic number. The Mountaineers collect 37 percent of their own misses, a top-12 mark. They still struggle to shoot the 3, and their offense survives off of second chances and live-ball turnovers. Despite being ranked second in the AP Poll, West Virginia is ranked 12th at KenPom.
That’s mainly because the Mountaineers have played a lot of close games – but that’s where having a superstar like Carter is most valuable. West Virginia is 7-0 in outcomes decided by single-digits this season; it went 6-9 in such games last season. Hence the reason why the Mountaineers finished higher in KenPom last season than they’re ranked now.
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Some of that is luck, but a lot of it is Carter. Last season, when going up against teams like Kansas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State, West Virginia never had the best player on the floor. That’s different this year. The Mountaineers’ close and late success is bound to regress to the mean to some degree, but based on Carter’s improvement and a solid surrounding infrastructure, it makes sense that they’re better in those situations.
There’s no juggernaut in college basketball this year. That’s why consistent, veteran programs like West Virginia, Villanova and Virginia have risen to the top. They know exactly who they are.
There’s value in unwavering loyalty to your basketball identity. West Virginia has tapped into that, but having a game-changer like Carter doesn’t hurt.