1.8 million people held their collective breath. We'd just watched Sagaba Konate limp into the locker room after attempting to Kevin Garnett a meaningless shot against Baylor. It was one of those land-on-somebody's-foot deals that's hard to watch in slow-motion, and it was made even worse by the fact that it was friendly fire on a play that had already been blown dead. I was 400 miles away on my couch in Charlotte, but I know that I was thinking the same thing as every one of the 12,500 in the Coliseum: SHIT.
Turns out we needn't have worried. Sags returned a few minutes later, and when it was all said and done he'd registered a career-high 7 blocks to go along with 8 points and 12 rebounds, the last of which secured West Virginia’s hard fought 57-54 win.
If you've been paying attention Tuesday night was nothing new - Konate's been having that kind of impact all year. However, even considering the improvement that you expect guys to make between their freshman and sophomore seasons, Sags' development has been startling.
His offensive contribution has been a very pleasant addition, though at this point he's still little more than a luxury on that end. He's added a nice little baby hook that he can hit from either block, and he's also finally showing confidence in his jump shot, displaying the ability to square up and consistently knock down out to about 18-20 feet. He's still not somebody that handles the ball well enough for us to run the offense through, but he's a very proficient scorer for somebody who's probably no more than a third option regardless of who else is on the floor with him.
As expected though, his presence has been felt most on the other end of the floor.
On the surface, we look very much the same defensively as we have over the past several years - we're still pressing the hell out of people and we're still in the Top 5 nationally in steals and turnovers forced per possession. The difference this year though is that breakdowns in the backcourt no longer lead to an automatic layup or dunk. Now when teams are able to break our press, Sags is waiting. Having a guy who can erase the mistakes that naturally arise from the controlled chaos that we play with has always been the missing piece in our defense, and we've never had anything like Sagaba Konate.
To be fair though, not many teams have. Like, ever. Konate currently leads the nation in defensive box plus/minus and ranks 10th in defensive rating, and those numbers look even better over the course of his career. He has the 6th best defensive rating of anybody with atleast 50 appearances going back to the start of CBB reference's data in 2009, and is actually the career leader in DBPM. Box plus/minus is calculated by manipulating stats found in the box score while defensive rating measures the number of points allowed per 100 possessions, and both numbers demonstrate the wide ranging impact he has on the defensive end. As mentioned above though, the thing he really excels at is protecting the rim.
As of Thursday, Sags is swallowing up a ridiculous 17% of opponents' 2-pt shot attempts this year (good for 2nd nationally), and that number is even crazier when you take a step back and consider what it actually means - that he's blocking almost 1 out of every 5 of the 2-pt field goals that have been taken when he’s been on the floor. Even more impressive is that his career block rate of 16.5% is already the best that anybody's posted going back to the start of CBB reference's data, meaning he's literally blocking shots at a higher rate than anybody in the country since atleast 2009.
The way he does it is equally impressive. Sags has the same mix of preternatural timing and athleticism that all great shot blockers have, but he also has a couple of underrated attributes that I think really set him apart. He has that rare ability to contest shots ambidextrously and the body control to stay vertical while doing so, and the combination of the two has led to what is in my opinion the most important improvement he's made this year - he's no longer fouling people.
Sags was already blocking shots at a prodigious rate last year as a freshman, but he was also averaging about 0.2 fouls per minute. That translates to a laughable 7.6 per 40. Simply put, he couldn't stay on the floor. This year he's cut that almost in half (0.11/min, 4.6/40), which has allowed him to stay on the court and has taken our team defense to another level.
Looking back through the annals of West Virginia basketball, we've had a handful of guys who deserve a mention in any "best shot blocker in school history" conversation. Names like Gordon Malone, Marcus Goree, and D'Or Fischer immediately come to mind, and even guys like John Flowers and Wellington Smith were extremely formidable for their size. However, I'm not sure that any of them were on Sags' level. He's on pace to shatter our career blocks record sometime early next year, and his 2018 block % is a full 7 points higher than the number that Fischer posted during his record-setting 2004 campaign. No matter how you look at it the guy is well on his way to being an all-timer here, and it's easy to make the argument that he's going to be as crucial as anyone to whatever run we end up making this year.