The Mountaineers finished an impressive three-game winning streak on Feb. 24, knocking off a Texas team that many saw as the worst matchup in the Big 12 for WVU. But the win came at a high price, as senior guard Juwan Staten injured his knee and was forced to the sidelines for the duration of the regular season.
Bad turned to worse in the following outing, as Gary Browne -- the only other West Virginia senior to see playing time -- injured his ankle in the opening minutes of the team's loss at Baylor on Feb. 28. He also sat out the rest of the way, making for an odd Senior Day ceremony this past weekend as the honorees (Browne, Staten and Kevin Noreen) were all in street clothes for their final home game as members of the Mountaineer roster.
It remains to be seen when Browne and Staten will return to action, as WVU coach Bob Huggins has repeatedly told reporters the two senior guards are being evaluated on a daily basis.
But if West Virginia dodges the worst and both players are able to play in the postseason (perhaps as early as Thursday's Big 12 quarterfinal matchup against Baylor), Huggins and company may look back on the seniors' injuries as blessings in disguise.
Yes, WVU went 1-2 in the final three games of the regular season without the seniors. But a few trends emerged, suggesting the other players on the team's young roster proved capable of handling a more sizable workload (and boding well for what the team as a whole may have in store for opponents in the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments).
Trend No. 1: Holton Avoided Foul Trouble
It had become something of a running joke on Twitter this season, wondering just how many minutes Jonathan Holton might be able to play before fouling out.
Huggins likely wouldn't find it funny, as Holton's skill-set is critical to what this team wants to do. Holton defends and rebounds. His aggressive nature is critical to his success in those facets of play, but it also made him the most foul-prone player on what has been, at times, an especially foul-prone roster.
Perhaps knowing his team needed him more than ever with Browne and Staten on the bench, Holton finally showed real signs of learning how to play without fouling down the stretch.
He played 35 minutes at Baylor, 40 minutes at Kansas, and 24 minutes against Oklahoma State to close the season. Holton committed only three personal fouls in each of those games; he had committed four or more fouls in each of the previous four games (and, in total, seven of WVU's prior 11 games).
Holton averaged only 17.7 minutes per game in WVU's first 15 outings in Big 12 Conference play; in the final three games of the regular season (with Browne and Staten sidelined), he averaged 33 minutes per game.
Huggins and everyone else associated with the Mountaineers will hope Holton holds to this new trend. On a team that doesn't shoot at a blistering clip (and, thus, needs extra possessions to beat quality opponents), Holton's offensive rebounding prowess is a significant feather in WVU's proverbial cap. He grabbed seven offensive boards at Baylor, five offensive rebounds at Kansas, and four offensive rebounds against Oklahoma State.
Trend No. 2: Miles Emerged As A True Scoring Threat
As noted above, West Virginia has been successful this year in spite of its shooting, which has typically been middling at best. At 41.1 percent from the field as a team this season, it ranks only 287th nationally in field goal shooting.
Of course, if WVU's frenetic defensive style were to be coupled with more consistent shooting, the sky could be the limit for this team. That's what made the recent play of freshman guard Daxter Miles, Jr. so encouraging for Mountaineers fans.
In the three games WVU played without Staten and Browne, Miles provided a much-needed jolt of offensive production. He averaged 16.3 points per game in that stretch run, after averaging only 6.0 points per game in the team's first 15 games against Big 12 opposition.
His 23 points in the team's overtime loss at Kansas were a season-high. Crucially, he kept his form in the following game against Oklahoma State, scoring 15 points -- his second-best output of the season.
Miles was shooting 38.6 percent from the field and 29.5 percent from 3-point range against Big 12 opponents before Staten and Browne were sidelined due to injury. In the final three games of the season, Miles made 50 percent of his field goals and 45 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Staten's scoring game has always been more about attacking the rim. The best way to make a driver like Staten more effective is to have a serious outside shooting threat waiting to receive a pass if the defense collapses too quickly. West Virginia has struggled to find its best option to fill that role at times, but Miles' play suggests it may finally have one just in time for postseason play.
Trend No. 3: The Mountaineers Owned the Glass
Perhaps it's a by-product of not having two veteran guards to give minutes, but once Browne and Staten got hurt, West Virginia got back to one of the hallmarks of a Huggins-coached team: rebounding.
The Mountaineers were actually beaten on the glass during their first 15 conference games, with an average rebounding margin of negative 0.1 per game.
But in the final three Big 12 matchups, WVU returned to the form one would expect from one of Huggins' teams. It out-rebounded Baylor by eight, grabbed 12 more boards than Kansas, and snagged 11 more rebounds than Oklahoma State. After finishing with a rebounding margin of +8 or better only three times in its first 15 Big 12 games, WVU was at +8 or better in each of its final three conference games.
Crucially, WVU crashed the offensive glass to earn those aforementioned extra possessions. The Mountaineers averaged 15.6 offensive rebounds per game in their first 15 games against Big 12 opponents; once Browne and Staten were injured, WVU finished with 19 offensive rebounds per game in the final three outings.
West Virginia's style of play this season is built around the idea of earning as many extra possessions as possible. It is most known for doing so as a result of its full-court pressure defense, but offensive rebounding is every bit as effective.