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Mike Casazza: Maybe Staten should be centerpiece of WVU offense

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- What Bob Huggins has done after a handful of games this season is insist his West Virginia team is not far from where it once was and needs to be again. The Mountaineers are close, he says, and he reminded the audience again following Tuesday's necessary road win against Baylor.

He saw flashes of defense and rebounding that were reminiscent of the past and promised "we're starting to play that way again." Remembering how the team's first loss to Oklahoma State cost it the following game against Texas, he approved of how the Mountaineers didn't let last Saturday's loss to the Cowboys bother them three days later.

"When we get the program back to where it was before," he said before going on about how this team has better leaders and direction than it did weeks ago, never mind last season.

WVU is again on the right side of ordinary after beating the Bears. It's still not an NCAA Tournament team, but it's still bold enough to screen conversations about the NIT. The Mountaineers are close, and you really are left to wonder about a few things.

How different might this be had they not given away a 17-point lead at Virginia Tech or fallen behind Wisconsin by 17? What changes if WVU covers Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos during his one spurt or Oklahoma State's Markel Brown on his game-winner? What if Juwan Staten answers Brown's score with one of his own to beat the buzzer and the Cowboys? How much of a difference would Jonathan Holton and Elijah Macon have made?

There are many questions and there is one that isn't getting a lot of play, but has to be addressed as WVU (12-9, 4-4 Big 12) buckles up for a brutal stretch that begins at home Saturday against a Kansas State team (15-6, 5-3) that embarrassed the Mountaineers 12 days ago.

Should Staten be the one bearing the scoring responsibilities?

It's a peculiar question because Eron Harris has blossomed into one of the Big 12's best shooters and scorers. Harris (17.3 points per game) and Staten (17.2) are the highest-scoring duo in the best conference in the country, a condition that doesn't beg for change.

Yet as Harris clanged jump shots down the stretch Tuesday - 3-for-11 in the second half, 1-for-6 from 3-point range - and Staten dashed to the basket, as the point guard found the scores WVU needed and the shooting guard could not deliver, it was kind of hard to ignore the obvious: This ought to be Staten's offense.

Before, it belonged to Harris, something he's said and others around him have echoed. He had to shoot and score for WVU to win. There's a lot of truth to that, but it only goes so far. He's had struggles and defenses have learned to handle him better now than before. His game, quite frankly, is easier to defend and lately he's helped the opposition by getting into trouble with fouls.

Staten hasn't committed a foul in the past two games and he's played just shy of 80 minutes. He's become a truly effective, efficient and at the same time modest scorer, a combination great point guards possess. He doesn't take or make a ton of shots and he can wear out defenders as he wears out a path to the basket or the foul line - or both. It's not easy to defend, and you only have to watch Staten stutter step or dribble drive to understand that.

This isn't an argument about who is WVU's alpha dog. The Mountaineers won't have it and don't want any part of it.

"I don't really see a problem with things," Staten said. "I just go out there and play the game and I don't really worry about how many shots I've taken or how many points other people have scored. I just want to win, and as long as our score is better than theirs at the end of the game, I'm happy."

Harris can only admire how Staten keeps the other four plates spinning while he's on the floor, how he rebounds and guards and passes and never stops. How much one scores or the other needs to be shooting only comes up outside of the locker room after a game.

"I can't describe how hard his job is," Harris said. "There's a lot of pressure on him, but he knows how to handle it. It's an honor to play with that guy. I'm learning a lot from him, to be honest."

Yet there's case to be made for Staten leading the offense and taking the most shots. Begin with the way it changes the parts around him. Less attention would go to Harris, and that's a guy who could stand a break after battling defenses and his own emotions all month. Harris doesn't have to be on all the time if Staten is doing his thing, and if Harris is off, WVU doesn't have to revert to Terry Henderson, who's as up and down as the sun.

And most important, perhaps, is that WVU would go from a team that hunts and needs jump shots to a team that can push you, if not with tempo, then with a strong and speedy guard who can't be stopped.

But the numbers tell the story best. Harris had taken 271 shots this season. If it was Staten leading the team in that category, he'd score more points than Harris has. Staten doesn't shoot anywhere near the volume of 3-pointers Harris does. He gets close to the rim or falls back on an emergency break jumper and makes 52.2 percent of his attempts. Increase his output and watch him attempt and make more free throws, too.

Take his percentages and make the projections. If Staten had taken 271 shots, he'd be averaging a little more than 19 points per game, a layup more than he does right now and the best average in the Big 12.

Would there be consequences? It's hard to believe Harris wouldn't continue to get his shots or that WVU needs Henderson shooting so much. It's harder to believe a player as good as Staten wouldn't continue doing everything he already does at a high level.

Staten's strength this season is choosing his spots, but what if the Mountaineers chose to make it about Staten? Would they - could they still - be better?

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com.


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