The West Virginia Mountaineers are off to a better start to the season than almost anyone could have imagined after a disappointing, frustrating 15-21 season last year. Although the Mountaineers are 11-2 and ranked #16 in the Associated Press rankings, consider what it would be like if WVU’s all-time shot blocks leader Sagaba Konate and fiesty guard James “Beetle” (Brittle?) Bolden returned for their Senior seasons.
Konate, of course, sat out most of his Junior season last year, playing in only eight game while averaging 13.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game, and then made himself eligible for the NBA Draft. Konate went undrafted before being signed by the NBA defending champions the Toronto Raptors. He was waived by the team and now plays for the Raptors 905, the G League Affiliate of the Toronto Raptors.
Obviously his decision to leave West Virginia early was a poor one and everyone except perhaps his brother told him so. Another year in Morgantown playing full time, proving that his knee was fully healed and improving his perimeter jump shot while leading the Mountaineers to a deep run in March, would have made a huge difference and he would have likely been drafted in next year’s NBA Draft.
James “Beetle” Bolden’s decision to transfer to Alabama was also conspicuous due to his rationale. Transferring to Alabama is a lateral move at best and his opportunity at playing time was unlikely his motive. Bob Huggins is loyal to his Seniors and Bolden would have been a critical cog on this year’s team. Bolden, who currently averages 9.1 points and 1.2 assists per game for the 7-6 Crimson Tide, “did what was best for his career” and moved on.
What West Virginia was missing in their 60-54 loss to the Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse was a dominant shot-blocker capable of eliminating alley-oop dunks and shutting down interior play. Although Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe are talented defenders who may one day be comparable to Sagaba Konate, they aren’t Sabaga Konate. Konate was college basketball’s ultimate rim-protector and his abilities would have been invaluable against the Jayhawks.
Another element that the Mountaineers were missing was a leader that could hit perimeter shots and come up with key three-pointers in big situations. That is James “Beetle” Bolden all day. As West Virginia went 5+ minutes in the second half without a field goal, I couldn’t help but to think of Bolden spotting up in the corner for a huge three or driving to the basket with reckless abandon, throwing up a crazy shot and getting the Mountaineers points when they needed it most.
West Virginia is exceeding expectations this season and they are going to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament without Konate and Bolden, but if Sagaba Konate and Beetle Bolden came back as Seniors, the Mountaineers may very well be 13-0 and one of the top ranked teams in the nation right now.