West Virginia will go into the 2022-23 season with six guards on the men’s basketball roster. Three of those are returnees from last year – Kedrian Johnson, Kobe Johnson and Seth Wilson – but the group figures look markedly different from last year’s lineup, which relied on goalscorer Taz Sherman and long-distance marksman Sean McNeil for much of its offensive strike. Sherman and fellow guard Malik Curry played off their selection criteria while McNeil made the switch.
In their place, WVU added two transfers with very good CVs and a newcomer who the coaching staff believe could be a hidden developmental gem.
“Eric (Stevenson) is tough,” Huggins said of one of the two incoming transfers from High Division I Schools. “He’s the alpha of the group. He leads whether they like it or not. He can shoot it and he’s played at the highest level. He’s competitive.”
Stevenson, as Huggins has hinted, wasted no time in imposing his will on the team. To say he leads whether the rest of the team wants it or not is somewhat reminiscent of former guard Daxter Miles, who pushed his way into a starting position on the pitch early in his career. When Huggins called for five players to hit the ground in an early practice, Miles was front and center, and he eventually started all but 12 of the games he played in his four seasons as a mountaineer.
Stevenson, a transfer from South Carolina, will see fewer games overall in a Mountaineer uniform than Miles, but the same type of leadership and attitude shows in his lineup. He’ll never back down from a challenge, driving the lane with devotion to make contact or bring defenders to him to open overtaking lanes.
In one of the connections that define the collegiate game, WVU got Stevenson because of Frank Martin, a member of the Huggins coaching tree, but that wouldn’t have happened if Martin hadn’t lost his job in South Carolina. Had he been retained, Stevenson would undoubtedly have ended his career with the Gamecocks.
“He played for Frank, so it wasn’t hard for me to research him,” Huggins noted. “Frank wanted to go, so he didn’t want to play there.”
This is Stevenson’s fourth stop at college and not his first encounter with West Virginia. As a freshman at Wichita, he helped the Shockers get back into their 2019 vacation tournament game against WVU in Riviera Maya, Mexico. The Mountaineers took an early lead and threatened to run away, but Stevenson sparked a rally with a game-high 22 points before West Virginia secured a 75-63 win.
“I liked him when he was a freshman in Wichita. He brought them back into play when we had them pretty well under control,” Huggins recalled.
Stevenson put on an all-around performance, adding five rebounds, an assist and a steal against no turnovers.
The other backcourt transfer, Joe Toussaint, hails from the Bronx, New York, and Iowa of the Big 10 — a league known for physical play. Huggins will take whatever he can get and Toussaint’s experience should be combined with Stevenson’s to help the Mountaineers deal with whatever opponents can throw at them.
Weighing a hefty 190 pounds, the Cardinal Hays High School product led the Hawkeyes in assists and steals as a junior while posting an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.33-1. He showed more of that acumen in the passing game in WVU’s Gold-Blue Debut Scrimmage, dishing out five assists for just one turnover in 24 minutes.
Toussaint will join forces with Kedrian “Keedy” Johnson, who played point last year but struggled with ball handling at various points and suffered 57 turnovers against 54 assists. Of course, he also lost some potential assists due to WVU’s shooting challenges, so those numbers might be a bit misleading, but he clearly worked hard on his dribbling and ball safety in the offseason and seemed much more comfortable in West Virginia’s early days feel jostling.
Together, Toussaint and Johnson hope to give the Mountaineers a more stable game up front.
“Keedy is probably the best right now because he knows what’s going on. But Joe’s good,” Huggins said of the pair. “They know what they’re doing. You are cozy. Look at our point guard position and it’s competitive and that’s good.
That’s important to West Virginia, which had to make minutes at the site last year.
“We kicked Kobe (Johnson) out last year because we had to. He wasn’t really a pointer, but now we can play him on point or on two,” explained Huggins. “He has size (6ft 3, 210lbs) and strength. He’ll play a lot of minutes because he can play a lot of positions.”
In addition to Stevenson and Kobe Johnson, returnee Seth Wilson offers another option for the position of the two guards. Wilson is a heavily built sophomore who competed hard last season in his freshman year in the program. He’s a versatile player who could be an asset that can be used in a variety of ways.
Rounding out the list is freshman Josiah Davis, a 6-3, 195-pound freshman from Kitchener, Ontario who played at Teays Valley (W.Va.) Christian School last year. He won’t have the pressure to start straight away like Kobe Johnson and Wilson did as rookies last year and that could help ease the pressure on his development.
“He’s a boy from West Virginia who wanted to play in West Virginia. He’s playing well,” Huggins said of the lone newcomer in the backcourt. “He’s a good size and physique and he’s really competitive too. He will be fine.”
With a variety of body types and a mix of skills, West Virginia guards are able to play in a variety of ways and combine their skills to overcome opponents’ challenges. There is still a lot of work to be done putting it all together and the Mountaineer Backcourt should by no means be considered a finished product. It’s hard to define what identity this team will have, but perhaps it will be one that defies slogans.
“I could come up with (a description) but it probably wouldn’t be right,” Huggins said, a little wryly but, as so often, with more than a grain of truth at its core. “But I think we can be versatile. We can watch other people’s movies and maybe attack them better because we can do it in many ways. That’s the deepest depth we’ve had in a while. They understand that they have to compete with each other.”
This will happen in a variety of ways, but as always with Huggins, it starts on the defensive. More than once in the preseason, he’s noted that this team might be able to press some, though certainly not at the level they unleashed in Press Virginia’s heyday. However, with strong guards that should resist being knocked off the ball and some long wings and mobile bigs that can shorten overtaking lanes and help with traps, the potential is there.
“We have the bodies to press. I think we can throw numbers at people,” he said. “We can throw fresh corpses in many places. We will [guard]. We will, or you will sit and watch. They know that. That’s how it should be. We have guys who have to compete against each other to play well.”
This is part one of three areas of focus for guards who must maximize possession and efficiency by limiting turnover and making shots.
“I would say we need a little work on (ballhandling). We’ll throw it around a bit,” Huggins said, an idea reinforced in the team’s first scrimmage, in which they committed 12 turnovers in a 24-minute game.
Shooting remains a fundamental element, as always, and while Huggins remains optimistic, there’s a difference between putting down shots at the practice facility in October and on the pitch against the likes of Gonzaga, Duke, Purdue and Xavier, not to mention the incredible Competition in the Big 12.
“We’ve got some guys who can really shoot,” the veteran coach claimed after some early practice, but after a season in which the Mountaineers only made 41.3% of their attempts, pretty much everything is probably looking like an improvement. Only Stevenson has been a volume scorer at the collegiate level, so the performance of him and his backfield mates in getting the ball through the basket will be closely watched throughout the season.
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