KANSAS CITY, Mo.—In a corner of the West Virginia locker room, with an ice pack strapped to his left knee, star guard Juwan Staten went to work on a dry erase board. The Mountaineers’ leading scorer had been a mere spectator in a 80–70 loss to Baylor in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament. But now Staten diagrammed the ways to attack a zone for sophomore guard Tarik Phillips, feverishly moving the marker to highlight the soft spots. It was, after all, all he could do.
West Virginia and Staten know too well that more is required. Much more, in fact, if the Mountaineers are to have any hope of NCAA tournament success, of shaking off a late-season skid. With this in mind, the most important player on the roster drew a much rosier picture about next week.
“I’m definitely going to play in the NCAA tournament,” Staten said. “I’m doing everything I have to do to make sure I’m ready to play.”
[daily_cut.college basketball]There might be more fascinating Big 12 teams headed into the field of 68, but there are few that could be more disruptive and maddening at full strength. The brick-on-the-gas-pedal Mountaineers press thus far has forced opponents into the highest turnover rate in the country (25.7%). But to cause miscues at a healthy rate, the roster needs to be practicing and playing as one. As expected, this was an issue Thursday. With Staten and senior guard Gary Browne both sidelined, West Virginia holstered the pressure a bit. As a result, Baylor committed just 10 turnovers. It won’t be the ideal way to attack in the NCAA tournament, simply because the Mountaineers’ advantage is deploying pressure that opponents aren’t accustomed to.
So all eyes will be on the return dates of Staten and Browne. On Thursday, Staten suited up only to rebound for teammates during warmups and then partially participate in layup lines. He was done for the day after that, missing a fourth straight game with an apparent knee injury. “They weren't 100% today,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said of Staten and Browne. “They could have played, but they weren't 100%. It wasn't the right thing to do by them, let me put it that way.”
At his locker stall, Staten declared this wouldn’t be a worry for next week. We will about that. But the senior said he had a full workout away from the Sprint Center one day earlier. He asserted that, even with limited traditional basketball work, he’s “done a lot of things that can help my game.”
“I felt good,” Staten said. “Of course, I haven’t been out there going up and down a whole lot for the past couple weeks. It’s that little bit you go through when you take a little time off. Nothing serious. Nothing that I can’t get over in a couple days.”
Which is why he said—perhaps most auspiciously, for West Virginia faithful—that he expects to be unlimited upon his return. “I wouldn’t play unless I could play like me,” Staten said.
That should be enough for a spark. Staten’s raw numbers were down this year, but some of that that seemed attributable to better balance and a lighter workload; his scoring average of 18.7 points this season was comparable to his rate of 19.4 a year ago, and his assist numbers were nearly identical (6.3 last year, 6.0 this year). His overall shooting regressed a bit from 48.5% to 42.3%, but then West Virginia is more worried about healthy, dangerous bodies than it is about percentage points. And Staten is a formidable attention-grabber who creates openings for everyone else.
So consider the next week an identity search for the Mountaineers. They’re just 5-6 since Feb. 1, and they know there is a gear they must recapture. “We have to get back to the team we were in Puerto Rico, playing with a lot of passion and intensity,” freshman Daxter Miles Jr. said. “It was fun. We have to get back to being that fun-loving team.”
To do so, simply, they need to get some players back. And one, in particular. From the sideline, Staten still has been a facilitator, seeing what the coaches see and attempting to reinforce their messages to his teammates. West Virginia will be much more comfortable, though, when its star guard’s actions speak for him.
“It’s not the end,” Staten said. “We have a great opportunity to do something special.”