But the Mountaineers’ hopes for success this season could center on the maturation of their freshmen and sophomores.
Freshman forward Will Miller and freshman shooting guard Byron Ashe rank fourth and fifth in scoring with 6.5 and 6.0 point averages, respectively. Sophomores Taylor Danaher and Gregory Graves have replaced Kristijan Krajina in the starting lineup after the senior center tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his knee against Bucknell on Nov. 26. And freshman point guard Khalid Nwandu has moved into the starting lineup in the last four games.
With Krajina and freshman guard Charles Glover (torn ACL) out for the season and junior guard Chris Martin sitting out the year after transferring from Marshall, coach Jamion Christian said there is plenty of court time for the younger players.
“We’re going to continue to play nine to 10 guys every single night without fail and without fear,” he said Monday morning. “It’s just all about our coaches having to put our guys in the best position to be successful.”
Christian is especially optimistic about the development of the freshmen. Ashe started six games before sustaining a concussion in practice, but the 6-foot, 155-pound guard has impressed with his ability to score.
“He gives us a scoring touch that you have to really respect,” Christian said. “He has such a confidence and swagger of how we want to build our program. So it’s really important that we have him back and to have him in the right mindset of understanding how important he is to our team. It helps that he’s also one of our best on-ball defenders. That allows us to play Julian off the ball a little bit defensively and allows for Sam and Rashad Whack to play other guys. His development is really important. Khalid Nwandu has an ability to pressure the ball. Since his entry [into the starting lineup], our defense has really gotten better, and because he’s our backup point guard, he’s been able to help us really be able to continue to push the ball. He had 15 points against Texas Tech. Our other freshman, Will Miller, had 15 against Norfolk State. I think he’s the best shooter in our league, and I think over time, he’s going to have a chance to knock down a lot of three-pointers for us. Because we’re down to nine scholarship guys, all of those freshmen are extremely important, and we really look to get value from them each game.”
Ashe’s place in the starting lineup has been filled by Nwandu. The 6-3, 165-pound guard is averaging just 5.0 points and 3.0 rebounds per game, but Christian values his presence on the defensive end of the floor.
“The reality of it is, with Julian and Rashad and Prescott and Danaher in that starting lineup, we have enough guys to score the ball,” Christian said. “Khalid really gives us a guy that can guard the other team’s best player or guard their best ball handler. So he really make our team more versatile, and what that allows me to do is play a guy like Byron Ashe and Will Miller off the bench and gives us an extreme amount of firepower.”