Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Juwan Staten hopes to lead his West Virginia Mountaineers back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years.
KANSAS CITY – In the grand scheme of things, Dayton, Ohio, is not too far down the road from Morgantown, W.V. It’s about four hours along Interstate 70, and for Bob Huggins, that’s close enough, at least to have a pulse on the local high school basketball scene.
And so when Huggins learned that Juwan Staten, a former star at Dayton’s Thurgood Marshall High School, was poised to transfer from the University of Dayton, his ears perked. When Staten committed to the Mountaineers, Huggins knew what he had. He knew Staten was good, really good, but he wanted affirmation. So he picked up the phone and dialed Steve Smith, the coach at Oak Hill Academy. Staten had spent his senior season at the Virginia prep school, which is known for producing NBA talent – Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo, Ty Lawson and Carmelo Anthony all attended Oak Hill – and Huggins figured Smith would be a decent judge of talent.
It’s not hard to imagine the call: Huggins, speaking in that halting twang, the pauses between his words a temptation to jump in, to interrupt. It’s always better not to, though. He’ll keep going, you see, which is how this very story slipped out.
“Steve, what do you think of Juwan?” Huggins asked. He got his answer point blank: “He’s the best point guard I’ve ever had,” Smith said.
Perhaps Smith was just blowing smoke, dishing a compliment to excite a coach who seems to become less excitable with each passing year. Perhaps, but what Staten has done since that phone call suggests that Smith might have been onto something.
“I don’t know if I thought that (he’d be this good), but I thought he’d be really good,” Huggins says. “He probably a year ago was better than I even thought he would be.”
Last season, in a breakout junior year, Staten led the Big 12 in scoring, averaging 18.1 points per game. His 5.6 rebounds per game were good for second-best on the Mountaineers team, and his average of 5.8 assists was not only top on his team, but also 21st among all NCAA players. During the season, Staten established a reputation not only for scoring, but also for being able to set up his teammates, and though he’s slightly undersized at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds and isn’t known as a long-range shooter, his speed more than compensates for those deficiencies.
I can see you now, scratching your head, wondering how you -- a perfectly cognizant casual basketball fan -- have never heard of this guy. How could this name not ring a bell? Well, I’ll tell you how: Last season, West Virginia went 17-16 (9-9 in the Big 12) missing the NCAA tournament. With Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Marcus Smart soaking up the spotlight, there was little shine left for Staten. He was a good player on a mediocre team, but this winter, his anonymity may just come to an end.
In October, Staten was named the Big 12 preseason Player of the Year. With that recognition has come heightened expectations for the Mountaineers and a dose of recognition – which Staten could, frankly, do without.
“It’s cool with me,” Staten says of the honor. “I’m alright. I don’t need the cameras or the recognition. I’m blessed to be in this position. I just want to work hard and get this award at the end of the year.”
Lean in. He’s hard to hear, what with the clicking cameras and reporters jockeying for position just a few feet to his left. This is Big 12 basketball media day, and Staten has the distinct pleasure of being seated at the table next to the Kansas crew. They’ve drawn a cluster of sports paparazzi, and Staten simply waits for the passing reporter. He could have brought a book to read during breaks.
“I’m fine if it doesn’t come,” he adds, gesturing toward the it that Kansas has in spades. “I actually would prefer not to have as much attention, because with attention comes a target. If I didn’t get the attention, that would be fine, too. And if I do, that’s fine. I’m going to go out there and play my game.”
His game: Huggins loves it. Rival coaches kick themselves over bending to it, allowing Staten to have his way, even though they’re not quite sure how to do it better. Kansas State coach Bruce Weber suggests that maybe his team should have been less aggressive, maybe backed off Staten a bit. “You’ve got to contain him more than stop him,” Weber says, but even as he suggests an alternative approach, he doesn’t seem quite sure it’s the answer.
This season, Huggins will walk a fine line with his senior guard. Last year, Staten averaged a whopping 37.3 minutes per game, which made sense. He was the team’s best player, its No. 1 option. Teammates relied on him, but by the end of games, he was spent, beat. This year, Huggins hopes to be able to rest Staten when he can, to save up his energy for the moments when the team really needs him, but there’s a catch. Two of the players who would have been able to spell him or to carry the unit without him transferred last summer.
Even so, Huggins swears he’ll find a way, and Staten is focused on bigger issues than his minutes. After his team struggled defensively a year ago, the point guard will be charged with setting his team’s defensive identity – “I think we’re finally maybe going to guard somebody, which would be something new,” Huggins quips. And Staten also need to provide even more leadership in the wake of the transfers.
After several mediocre seasons, there’s been less than usual to cheer about in March in Morgantown. This year, and largely because of Staten, that could change. Weber theorizes that before the transfers, West Virginia could have been a top-20 team, but now, questions loom. Staten could still be the solution to the Mountaineers’ recent struggles, but just like last year, he’ll have to bear the greatest burden en route to his first-ever NCAA tournament berth.
He’ll run his legs off if that means getting there. He remembers how exhausted he was last season, when his team came up short and he barely got a breather. He remembers, and he’d do it again.
“If we had to play four more games,” he says, “I would have played four more games the same way.”
Maybe this year he’ll get that chance.