No. 15 West Virginia looks to remain sharp vs. VMI

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Until Big 12 Conference play opens Dec. 30, the most difficult task facing No. 15 West Virginia may be keeping its focus.

Opening a five-game stretch against outmanned mid-majors, the Mountaineers (7-1) buried Western Carolina 90-37 on Wednesday night. There’s likely more carnage expected Saturday when they host another lightly regarded SoCon opponent in VMI (1-6).

While the competition doesn’t look stiff, the next three weeks will be developmentally important for a roster trying to get six freshmen oriented.

“We’re trying to work on team things, stuff for ourselves,” forward Elijah Macon said. “Running plays right, guarding right, keeping people off the foul line.”

Esa Ahmad (12.8 points, 5.3 rebounds) leads a balanced assault along with versatile forward Nathan Adrian (11.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists). The backcourt tandem of Jevon Carter (9.8 points, 3.4 steals) and Tarik Philip (8.3 points, 2.4 assists) is among the grittiest in Division I, and Daxter Miles (7.2 points, 2.0 assists) is still finding his legs after being sidelined for the first three games by a reported illness.

Reserve guard Teyvon Myers (9.5 points) has made 63 percent of his 3-point attempts, finding the stroke that made him the nation’s junior college scoring champion two seasons ago. Deploying a 12-man rotation, West Virginia has topped the 100-point mark three times this season without a player scoring 20 points in a game.

“Just shows you how deep our team is,” Ahmad said. “That’s pretty amazing.”

While West Virginia ranks No. 6 nationally at 90.5 points per game, much of that scoring occurs via transition baskets created by its full-court press. Half-court offense has looked clunky as Bob Huggins sought to gain experience for first-year players.

“We’ve got to score the ball,” Macon said. “There was a stretch toward the end of the (Western Carolina) game where we didn’t score for like five minutes. We’ve got to run our offense right. We can’t have guys out there not knowing what’s going on.”

VMI, which is paced by guards QJ Peterson (20.6 points, 7 rebounds) and Julian Elby (13.0 points), got its lone win came against Division III member Southern Virginia nearly a month ago. The string of five consecutive losses that followed culminated in an 86-68 setback to Gardner-Webb.

“They dominated us in points in the paint which was a variety of things – post-ups, just driving down the lane – and unfortunately, our defense wasn’t tough enough,” Keydets second-year coach Dan Earl said.

“We have to look in the mirror and be a tougher team. We have to figure that out. We showed some fight, but we had something like seven turnovers the first eight minutes of the game.”

VMI’s sloppiness could portend huge trouble against West Virginia, which forces 26 turnovers per game, tops in the country. The Mountaineers also rank top-40 in field-goal defense, holding opponents to 38-percent shooting overall.

“It’s hard for them just because we don’t let people run offense,” Huggins said. “And I think everybody is to the point where they see other people turn it over and you don’t want to turn it over. You want to take care of the ball, so the best thing to do is to throw it backwards, and it’s hard to run offense when you are constantly throwing the ball backwards.”

After VMI, the Mountaineers host UMKC, Redford and Northern Kentucky. They are building toward an end-of-the-month league opener against vastly improved Oklahoma State.

“Coming up Dec. 30,” Macon said, “we’re going to need everybody all-in.”