MORGANTOWN (AP) - Whatever success Juwan Staten has this season will be defined in the coming months as West Virginia pushes through a challenging stretch of non-conference games before opening Big 12 play against Oklahoma on Jan. 5.
Staten is the team’s point guard, the transfer from Dayton, where he led the Atlantic 10 in assists (190) as a freshman in the 2010-11 season.
The Mountaineers will need his points and his assists if they are to be better than the sixth-best team in the Big 12, as predicted in the preseason coaches’ poll, and make their sixth straight NCAA Tournament.
Truth is, Staten’s greatest achievement may have already happened.
Even though he sat out last season because of the NCAA’s transfer rules, his teammates named him a team captain before the start of this season.
“One of his skills, I would say, is that he’s really good with the ball and he can pass and shoot and score and all that stuff,” senior Deniz Kilicli said, “but I think his biggest skill is that he can really organize our team.”
That will be Staten’s calling over the next 12 days, a stretch in which WVU’s season will take form. It began with Wednesday’s Capital Classic against Marshall (5-4) at the Civic Center.
Three days later, the Mountaineers (3-3) host Virginia Tech (7-0), which is off to its best start since 1982-83, when WVU assistant Ron Everhart was a sophomore. (The game will be on ESPN2.)
WVU then plays Duquesne Dec. 11 at the Consol Energy Center before playing No. 3 Michigan Dec. 15 at the Barclays Center, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This is very much the opportunity Staten eyeballed last season as he watched from home and from the bench when WVU finished 19-14 and had frequent and sometimes prolonged periods when the offense didn’t work.
“I felt last year that we kind of lacked that guard that kind of brought everyone together,” Staten said. “I want to go out there and be a leader every time I step out on the court. I feel like I know what’s going on and it’s my job to help people who don’t and make sure the team gets into plays when we need to and gets into sets when we need to and plays defense when we need to.”
The Mountaineers can continue the momentum they started assembling in Wednesday’s 94-69 win against VMI, when seven players scored in double figures for the first time since 1994, or they can feel a little like they did after two losses in the Old Spice Classic left them 1-3.
“I think it’ll help us,” said Coach Bob Huggins, whose team played five games since Nov. 12. “It’s hard to simulate games in practice. That’s why high school guys scrimmage as much as they can scrimmage. They want to play against someone else. It helps.”
It’ll help Staten, too. His first game with WVU, which was his first game since Dayton’s NIT loss in 2010, was forgettable. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound sophomore went scoreless and missed all six of his shots in 34 minutes of the loss to Gonzaga.
He’s been far better since, making 23 of 38 shots, 14 of 17 free-throw attempts and averaging 13.5 points. He only had eight assists in the two games and he has a negative assist-turnover ratio for the year, but assists for a point guard can be misleading in the motion offense Huggins runs. Everyone is put in position to pass the ball and set up baskets.
That’s coming around, too. WVU has scored 50, 60 and 70 points in losses and 87 and 94 in wins.
“We want to play more of a faster, up-tempo pace,” he said. “That goes through my mind every time the ball is on my hands.
Staten’s bigger impact giving direction, whether its organizing and instructing the team or taking a steal or a defensive rebound or a pass after a missed shot and racing toward his team’s basket. His teammates marvel about the difference it makes after they say they lacked it in the past.
“Let’s be realistic,” sophomore Gary Browne said. “We have more leadership on the team now.”
WVU played the past two seasons with Truck Bryant as the team’s starting point guard, but he was miscast after starring as a high school and AAU shooting guard. To his side last season was Jabarie Hinds, a freshman who had also never played the point guard position, but who is also struggling back at the off guard position this season (8.2 points, 43.9 percent shooting, 27.8 minutes per game).
Most of the Mountaineers haven’t played with what one of them might call a true point guard. Only senior Deniz Kilicli and sophomore Kevin Noreen shared the floor with Joe Mazzulla, whose last game was the NCAA Tournament loss to Kentucky in 2011.
“When you have a real point guard, your game is going to be way different,” Kilicli said. “You’re going to have drives and kick-backs, not just drives. That kind of stuff we didn’t have much of because Truck was a 2-guard, what you’d call a combo guard, but he was a scorer.
“Before that, we had Joe and Joe was a point guard and you could see a difference between last year’s offense and the offense my sophomore year when Joe was here, and even the Final Four year the year before that when Joe was healthy. Joe did all the stuff he needed to do to make sure everyone on the team was on the same page because a point guard sees everything before the coach does because he’s in there. Juwan can do the same thing.”