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West Virginia Basketball Positional Preview: Bigs

Basketball is right around the corner, what can WVU expect out of their big men?

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

With elections and a 7-1 football team distracting almost everyone, the #20/18 Mountaineer basketball season tips off this week. Its time to take a look at what can be expected out of the West Virginia Mountaineers this season.

First off, these positional previews will be divided as bigs (the guys that anchor the back line of the 1-3-1 trap), wings (the guys who spend most of their time on top of the trap) and the guards (the guys that do all the rest, and make up the majority of the roster). Once again, the West Virginia roster lists no centers. That leaves a relatively thin group of Elijah Macon and Brandon Watkins, along with newcomers Maciej Bender and Sagabe Konate.

The conspicuous hole that this group will need to fill was vacated a year early by Devin Williams. Devin recorded the second most minutes as a junior last year for the Mountaineers. He averaged 13.3 points per game and a team best 9.5 rebounds per contest. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that WVU would likely have been a top 10 preseason team if Devin had elected to stay for his senior season. Financial pressure did not allow that to happen and someone will have to step up into the void. Let’s look at those players in order of who is likely to have the most impact.

Elijah Macon, 6’9/240, Jr.

Elijah looks to be the best offensive option this year in this group of bigs. Highly touted out of high school, Macon has had a somewhat tumultuous career in Morgantown that has seen him redshirt his first year and be forced to deal with the untimely loss of his mother. He averaged just over 13 minutes per game last season, but has shown flashes of dynamic athleticism.

The biggest issue for the back line of this group will be rebounding and staying on the floor and out of foul trouble. Macon has certainly had issues with foul trouble. He committed 68 fouls in 462 minutes of total action last year. That comes out to one foul for every 6.7 minutes of action. He has the frame, length, experience and opportunity to be a hugely important piece of the puzzle for WVU this year. Disciplined, controlled play will be the key to whether or not he gets enough minutes to realize this opportunity.

Brandon Watkins, 6’9/225, Sr

Watkins looks longer, leaner and more athletic than Macon on the court. He has shown flashes of excellent defensive potential. Injury postponed his contributions to last year’s campaign, and it never seemed as though he ever got comfortable in a year where he certainly could have broken through and provided a larger contribution.

If a penchant getting called for fouls is a concern for Macon, it is even larger for Watkins. In 125 minutes of total playing time, Brandon was whistled for 30 fouls. That’s nearly one every 4 minutes. The bulk of the scoring responsibilities will fall on the guards. It would be an enormous move in the right direction if Watkins can find a way to be effective on the glass and the defensive end and be able to play close to 20 minutes a game.

Now onto the newcomers:

Maciej Bender, 6’10/240, Fr

Bender is a three star product out of Poland who played his high school ball at the Mountain Mission School in Grundy, Va. He entertained a reasonably respectable list of offers before committing to play for Coach Bob Huggins. Huggins has been fairly adamant that the freshmen on this year’s squad will get their opportunities to play. Many players have had a slow transition at WVU, as Huggins demands a considerably higher level of defensive accountability and effort than many prep players are used to. What can Bender bring to this team?

First off, Maciej runs the floor well and has three point range (and gets his feet set quickly and has a good release). Stretching the floor is not something that the bigs have been asked to do in Morgantown in recent seasons. His handle is actually pretty fluid and his frame looks solid. He is not the scrawny prototypical Euro stretch four. Playing with the Polish U20 national team this summer, he averaged a team leading 9.5 rebounds per game. His post foot work looks decent, but the competition upgrade will be significant.

While his offensive game is very different and more diverse than the upperclassmen that will sit ahead of him on the depth chart, Bender’s minutes and potential contributions to this year’s squad will come down to defensive effort, adaptation, rebounding, and that whole fouling issue again. A big that can move the towers out of the paint and allow more room for players like Tarik Philip, Jevon Carter, and Daxter Miles, Jr. to slash to the bucket could help reduce the often times stagnant reliance on long balls that can bog this team down offensively. Even more optimistically, it would allow our long, athletic wings (Esa Ahmad and Lamont West) to have more operating space as well. Only time will tell.

Sagaba Konate, 6’8/250, Fr

Sagaba is another three star prospect who chose WVU over Pitt. He is originally from Bamako, Mali, but played high school ball at Kennedy Catholic High School in Hermitage, Pa. Sagaba looks strong. He has good athleticism and appears to have at least a mid range jump shot.

All the same concerns over adjustment period, defense, rebounding, etc are here as well, but Konate has the tools to contribute immediately. He does seem to have good defensive instincts and likes to attack the bucket. Comparisons to Devin are likely inevitable. They are very similar in size, though Sagaba does look a bit more flight of feet. Whether that advantage will translate to the B12 will be born out in time. Devin also had an extremely well developed positional game that will be hard to imitate. I expect to see both freshmen given plenty of chances to prove their mettle early and often.

So, what does it all mean?

In all likelihood, this unit will not be the strength of this team, and will not be asked to. I will beat the dead horse once again and say that foul trouble concerns will likely haunt the Mountaineer faithful. The upperclassmen have a proven track record of foul issues and there is virtually no way that two freshmen will come into the chaotic #pressvirginia style of play and be able to avoid racking up a few of their own.

What this group will be asked to do is rebound the basketball. Jonathan Holton’s replacements will be discussed more at length in the “wings” section of the positional previews, but his rebounding productivity will almost certainly come partially from this group.

Last year, Huggins utilized more defensive looks than he did in the first iteration of #pressvirginia. If these four cannot manage to stay on the floor and keep the opponents off of the charity stripe, there may be some early experimentation with defensive looks. It is not inconceivable, if WVU can rebound the ball adequately, that a lineup of three guards and Ahmad and Adrian could be used to run the 1-3-1 trap.

While this lineup would be susceptible to good post play, it could create enough chaos for teams getting the ball in bounds and into the front court to justify it. While it is an intriguing option, it is probably not an ideal solution.

Suffice it to say, the optimal situation for our big guys this year is that Macon has a break out year. He seizes upon his underlying potential, and one of the freshmen proves to be a quick adaptor. If this happens and the Mountaineers can find 40-50 productive, low foul minutes per game out of this group, they will have done their part to set up the rest of the squad for success.