MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – There might not be a college basketball team in the country with fewer eligible guards than the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Projected starter Kerr Kriisa was recently suspended nine games for receiving impermissible benefits during his time at the University of Arizona, and two-guard RaeQuan Battle’s eligibility is still in limbo. Eastern Michigan transfer Noah Farrakhan is also ineligible for the 2022-23 season.
Now – according to interim head coach Josh Eilert – it’s junior point guard Kobe Johnson’s turn to run the show, at least for the first month of the season.
“When I found out the news, it hurt, but I [know I] got to take that on,” Johnson said. “Next man up. [I will] prepare these guys [and] lead them.”
Johnson made 61 appearances in his first two years at WVU, and he started four games in 2022 when Kedrian Johnson was injured. Still, he never cracked the rotation on a consistent basis with the team at its healthiest. As a freshman and sophomore, he averaged 1.7 points and 0.4 assists in just 9.66 minutes of playing time per game.
Now in a significantly bigger role, he would say those days are in the past.
“I feel like this summer, I just had the extra click,” he said. “In my past two seasons, [I] wasn’t the best. My junior year, I just want it to be a great one.”
Seth Wilson – who is expected to start at shooting guard – and Jeremiah Bembry – who has yet to log a minute of collegiate playing time – are the only two other eligible guards on the roster following Kriisa’s suspension. Should something drastic happen with Johnson’s availability, WVU’s bare-boned depth chart could be exposed.
“That’s a challenge [where] I don’t want to go down that road,” interim head coach Josh Eilert said.
Eilert later conceded and clarified that Bembry will back up Johnson for the first nine games of the season.
But don’t be surprised if Johnson’s leash is a little longer with the team’s lack of depth. If Johnson gets into foul trouble, he might stay on the court, whereas his big-man counterparts like Jesse Edwards and Quinn Slazinski might take an early seat in a similar situation.
“I’m not scared to play a smart individual with a high IQ with two fouls in the first half,” Eilert said.
Eilert likely also won’t load Johnson with the same share of expectations and reads that Krissa handled. At the same time, Johnson’s best friend – who is also the team’s starting shooting guard – is expected to shoulder some of the load in the backcourt.
“Seth [Wilson] can relieve some pressure for Kobe,” Eilert said. “If they put a lot of pressure on Kobe, Seth will be able to handle the ball, and we’ve simulated some of that in practice, and I don’t feel like that’s an issue whatsoever.”
If the Mountaineers lose anything with Kriisa on the bench, it is their flare and spontaneity on offense. In more concrete terms, Kriisa led the Pac-12 in assists per game each of his last two years at Arizona, and the manner of those assists were just as impressive as the volume.
Still, Eilert thinks they could actually improve on defense with Johnson running the point. While they share the same height (6-foot-3-inches), Johnson weighs 20 pounds heavier than Kriisa. Johnson’s bio on the WVU roster also notes that his wing span is nearly seven-feet long.
“Kobe gives you a lot of things that Kerr can’t,” he said. “Kobe’s length as a defender is better than Kerr’s. His size and strength is better than Kerr’s. So on the defensive end, it’s a step up. You can take Kobe and put him in a position to post [up] as well because he’s a big, strong guard.”
The next step for Johnson is commanding the offense. That doesn’t necessarily mean he needs to inherit Kriisa’s behind-the-back passes, but if he can facilitate scoring opportunities – be it for himself or others – like Kriisa does, the hope is that the offense does not regress any more than marginally.
“[Johnson has] been slow with pushing that envelope in terms of his aggressiveness, but his confidence levels are way higher than [they were] last year,” Eilert said. “Stepping up from a sophomore to a junior, and a staff that’s putting a lot of faith in him, I think that’s given him a lot of confidence.”
On a personal level, Eilert believes there’s something to be said about Johnson’s decision to stay in Morgantown following a chaotic summer that reshaped the WVU basketball program.
When the state of the program was at its foggiest point, he just kept showing up to work.
“I’ve always believed in Kobe,” Eilert said. “He’s one of those guys – and Seth [Wilson is] one of those guys – [that] are program guys. [Josiah Harris] is one of those guys. They just keep grinding. They keep on showing up every day, and eventually they’re going to shine.”