Men's Basketball, WVU Sports

COLUMN: WVU’s men’s hoops team has a path to success, but it’s a narrow one

MORGANTOWN — In terms of expectations, Josh Eilert isn’t ready to place any on his first WVU men’s basketball team, which didn’t change much with Friday’s Mountaineers Madness event.

“I don’t think it’s really fair to have those conversations yet,” Eilert said. “The ultimate goal is to get to the NCAA tournament with the best possible seed.

“I had those guys get together and do their team goals. So many times over the years, I’ve seen lofty, lofty goals.”

Despite what this Mountaineers program has been through — with the resignation of former coach Bob Huggins to the hiring of Eilert as the interim — once it becomes just about basketball, players are always going to want the best results.

“We’re going to have a hell of a year for sure,” Arizona transfer Kerr Kriisa said. “We have a whole new team, but for us, it’s more about being excited. We have nothing to lose. We’ll have a chip on our shoulder.

“I think people are doubting us, which I think it’s better that way. I’ve been at Arizona, where we were a No. 1 and No. 2 seed in back-to-back years, and it’s not always easy to deal with expectations.”

There’s lot to doubt about this team at the moment, especially since we’re now in October and we still don’t know what the final roster will look like yet.

That answer will come eventually, after the NCAA decides on guard RaeQuan Battle’s eligibility.

Yet it also felt different inside the Coliseum on Friday. The biggest cheers during introductions where for assistant coaches Da’Sean Butler and Alex Ruoff, two former standouts from years gone by.

Everything else was dampened curiosity for the most part.

We don’t know what this team is capable of. We don’t know what Eilert is capable of as Huggins’ replacement, and so it becomes an optimistic waiting game.

Could something special be in order? It’s possible, but a lot of things have to go the right way.

We break it down here:

Battle needs to be cleared

That third-guard or wing spot has been a sort of X factor for the Mountaineers in recent years, whether it was Emmitt Matthews Jr., Jalen Bridges or even going back to the days of Lamont West.

In short, it’s been a while since there was a real impact player at that position.

“RaeQuan’s special. He really is special,” Eilert said. “He’s probably our most natural athlete. He really scores the ball well. He can get himself his own shot. But defensively, if you go back to the Press Virginia days, he’d fit right in because he’s so smooth and so athletic and so quick-twitched compared to everybody else on that floor.”

Battle is dealing with an ankle injury and sat out Friday’s activities.

Looking at his waiver process, it’s really difficult to make sense of how the NCAA is feeling at the moment.

A month ago, it wasn’t looking good, as the NCAA seemed to be planting its flag on the hill against allowing immediate eligibility to athletes who have transferred more than once in their careers like Battle.

And then suddenly the organization cleared North Carolina wide receiver Tez Walker last week, which could add some optimism here.

Each case is different — especially when you try and compare football to men’s hoops — but there now seems to be at least some hope for Battle, who began his career at Washington and used his free transfer to also play at Montana State.

Jesse Edwards is just different

In his own words, the 6-foot-11 Edwards, a Syracuse transfer, is no banger in the post.

“I’ve become a pretty solid pick-and-roll center,” said Edwards, who averaged 14.5 points and 10.3 rebounds at Syracuse last season. “That’s what I base my game off of. That’s my profile.

“I’m expanding my range on offense. I’m not that slow center that’s going to bump everybody like a Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal).”

Where WVU bigs in the past — think Kevin Jones, Devin Wiiliams and Derek Culver — relied on size and muscle for positioning, Edwards showed Friday he’s more technique and finesse.

He also brings a boost of athleticism, so you’ll likely see some more lob dunks off penetration than before.

There may also be a transition for Edwards playing in a more physical league, as well as playing man-to-man defense as opposed to the 2-3 zone he played at Syracuse.

“I know it’s physical and a big league,” Edwards said about playing in the Big 12. “The teams in it are insane when it comes to all-over-the-board competitiveness. I have a feeling of what it’s going to be like, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

The Kriisa factor

If any of this is going to work for the Mountaineers this season, Kriisa has to be the guy making it happen.

Like Edwards, Kriisa is a type of guard who is maybe more free-flowing than the Mountaineers have had in recent years.

The Arizona transfer led the Pac-12 in assists last season and WVU is coming off a year in which it was eighth in that category.

He’s not as defensive as Jevon Carter and not as athletic as Juwan Staten, yet there are parts to Kriisa’s game that shows he can make a major impact as a point guard.

“I think I’m a creative player,” Kriisa said. “I would say free-flowing.I would consider myself a leader and trying to hold everyone else accountable. I want to be the best player I can be.”

He’ll be asked to score more, which means he’s got to be a better shooter than the 36% he shot at Arizona, but he does bring a wealth of confidence and a unique style to Morgantown.

Who is the other guy?

This is where things get interesting for WVU, especially if Battle isn’t cleared to play.

This can’t be a team that relies solely on Kriisa and Edwards and then just hopes someone else gets hot on any particular night.

Sophomore forward Josiah Harris could be that guy. Junior guards Seth Wilson or Kobe Johnson could be that guy.

The question will be about consistency. Wilson made a lot of tough shots last season, yet he had just one game in which he attempted more than seven.

Eilert has said Johnson is the most improved player on the team, yet Johnson’s role may be as a backup to Kriisa.

Harris, at 6-foot-7, may hold some important cards to just how good the Mountaineers can be this season.

“He’s an excellent kid with a great approach,” Eilert said of Harris. “He comes into work every day. We keep talking about rebounding, Josiah had eight rebounds in our 22-minute scrimmage. He understands where he can be effective for us. We want to empower him that he can keep coming in every day and help us.”