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Asti: West Virginia Basketball Would be Nowhere Without Erik Stevenson



West Virginia’s 2022-2023 basketball season was a roller coaster ride of emotions for those who follow the program, but it’s one that will land the Mountaineers where they want to be and where fans feel they belong – in the NCAA Tournament.

Even though it took a total team effort to get the job done, West Virginia would not be going dancing in March without Erik Stevenson. Say what you want about him, and he’s been easily the most discussed and scrutinized player on this team, but he also finally emerged as that leader and MVP-type player he was brought into be when his teammates needed him the most. If that didn’t eventually happen, and didn’t happen at just the right time, there’s no telling how WVU would’ve finished the season and what that would then mean.

After openly proclaiming himself as the leader of the team and constantly bringing up how much he feels he’s a true “Bob Huggins guy” early in the season, Stevenson, a fifth-year senior brought into help change the dynamic of the team, both with his play and his personality, and be one of WVU’s best players, then fell from grace. He dipped from the player his Hall of Fame head coach would look to first when trying to communicate to his team, to someone who appeared to have entered Huggins’ doghouse. And this didn’t occur overnight like some may think.

Stevenson was always a player who could clearly shoot and put points on the board. That was never a concern. But even as the Mountaineers were rolling during non conference play, Huggins brought up how Stevenson’s interest in WVU playing a “bully ball” style that would impose a will of physicality on opponents could pose a problem for this group down the road. “We want to bully people” is the quote from Stevenson that set Huggins off.

Asti: Bob Huggins Knows ‘We Want to Bully People’ Mentality Could Create Problems

“With that, I think comes a lot of fouls as well. We gotta find somewhere in between. Somewhere where we’re still physical but we’re physical in the right way according to what the rules say,” Huggins said in response to those comments. Huggins, a man who has been around the block longer than most when it comes to college basketball circles, knew that mentality was going to get his team in trouble and into devastating foul trouble far too often. That could be recipe for disaster in a conference widely regarded as the toughest in the country by far.

It seemed from the point of those comments on that Huggins had his eye on Stevenson and was unsure if he fit the role as a true leader and MVP, much in the same way top players of the past led the best teams of his coaching career. Then came the incident in Manhattan, Kansas.

The Mountaineers ended up squandering an opportunity to start off Big 12 play with a win. They blew it down the stretch and Stevenson, their supposed leader to that point, melted down mentally, letting the opponent and even their fans get to him and get him off of his game, especially in the final minutes. WVU would then go onto lose their next four in a row, opening the conference schedule with a five-game losing streak that put a team that established a reason for hope early in the season into a deep hole. The losing was ignited by the player who was supposed to lead them to the promised land.

Huggins, maybe knowing his best player may need a kick in butt to spark something in him, publicly brought up how the team was in desperate need of leadership. Ouch, right? That had to sting hearing when you are making it so known you are the leader. Huggins no longer saw the leadership he thought was once there. For the next two months, Stevenson did put up some solid performances and WVU did earn several quality wins in the midst of playing one of the most difficult schedules in the country, but nothing was guaranteed. For every big win eventually came a disappointing loss as well. West Virginia was firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Would WVU get in? No one could truly be sure.

Fast forward to Stevenson speaking out, and complaining (for lack of a better word) about how WVU’s path was harder than Pitt’s, a rival from a considerably weaker conference by most metrics who the Mountaineers did comfortably beat months earlier. And while he did have a point based on WVU having to play significantly more “quad 1” games thanks to the Big 12 than the Panthers out of the ACC, would moaning about it do his team any good? Is complaining when your team needs rallied really the best strategy? Some began to question and criticize Stevenson again.

How would Stevenson respond this time? Incredibly well became the answer. After only scoring three points against Texas and missing the Baylor game, Stevenson exploded to take the leadership reigns back over and carry the Mountaineers through the end of the regular season. He scored 20+, in fact at least 23 points, in each of the final five games of the season, earning him some individual recognition from the Big 12.

WVU G Erik Stevenson Sweeps Big 12 Weekly Awards

Now WVU did start off that span with a loss, one characterized as a bad one, at home to Texas Tech, but then won three out of their last four games. The only loss coming to number three Kansas in a game WVU actually had a chance to tie up in the waning seconds. This streak even included a Big 12 win on the road, something rare for WVU in recent seasons.

With a sense of fitting irony sine it came against the same team he had his most glaring blunder, Stevenson capped off his resurgence by going 11 for 22 and scoring 27 points in the regular season finale win over Kansas State, a game many emphasized a “must-win” for WVU to secure an NCAA Tournament berth.

It’s very possible this season and Stevenson will be remembered, for better or worse, by most of Mountaineer Nation by how it ends in the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments, but in reality, West Virginia is likely left standing against the wall while everyone else is dancing right in front of them without Stevenson finally becoming the player and leader his head coach always believed he could be.

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