MORGANTOWN - For the time being, it’s convenient to say things would be different for West Virginia if Elijah Macon and Jonathan Holton were eligible to play.
The Mountaineers are allowing the highest shooting percentage in the Big 12, and that has a lot to do with giving up a ton of points in the paint. That can then be traced to WVU ranking ninth in rebounding margin and eighth in blocked shots.
So, sure, things might be different if the 6-foot-7, 210-pound Holton, who led junior college in rebounding, and the 6-9, 240-pound Macon could play and help WVU (15-11, 7-6 Big 12) compete better in the areas it comes up short.
For now, it’s a waste of time to think about what might have been. But for those wondering about what it might be like next season and beyond, behold the visitors Saturday and Baylor’s Cory Jefferson. The 6-9, 220-pound fifth-year senior took a developmental redshirt in 2010-11 and leads the Bears (17-9, 5-8) in scoring and rebounding.
“That definitely worked out well, didn’t it?” coach Scott Drew said.
Jefferson was a spare part as a freshman, a spindly kid from Killeen, Texas, who played fewer than five minutes per game in 21 games and averaged 1.3 points and 1.2 rebounds as the Bears reached the Elite Eight.
None of that figured to change too much the next season. The Bears had Quincy Acy and Perry Jones III, both of whom now are in the NBA, in the frontcourt and 6-11, 275-pound J’Mison Morgan and 6-10, 200-pound Anthony Jones off the bench.
“He was one of the players who was good enough to play for us, but he was behind more experienced veteran players,” Drew said. “He was obviously very talented, but asking him to redshirt was an opportunity to practice every day and get better and, most of all, physically improve. Cory was someone who came in with a slight build. Now, five years later, he looks like Superman. He’s done a great job in the weight room.
Jefferson was a 170-pound freshman who added 10 pounds of muscle alone sitting out one year. He’s 50 pounds heavier now with much more muscle.
Like Holton this season, Jefferson could practice with the Baylor team that missed the postseason in 2011. But since he didn’t play and wasn’t traveling, he could work out more often than the teammates who did play and couldn’t wear out their bodies with repeated workouts throughout the season.
Holton can do the same, too, and stands to benefit the same, if not in weight gained than in strength and conditioning because there are no game-related limitations to his workouts. When he’s not in the weight room, he can spend time on skill development, important for a player who can stretch defenses with perimeter and 3-point shots.
Macon’s case is different. He’s not permitted to practice and wrist surgery has slowed the progress he could have made in the weight room.
Holton will enter next season with two seasons of eligibility. Macon will have four seasons. Jefferson returned to the active roster as a sophomore in the 2011-12 season with three seasons remaining. His playing time more than doubled to 10.5 minutes and he averaged 3.6 points and 2.6 rebounds. He also blocked 43 shots, the 10th-highest total in school history.
“I noticed little differences early on, but my teammates were the ones telling me they saw the big difference,” Jefferson said. “Then going through things again every day in practice and getting to go through the games, I noticed my body and my game were different.”
Jefferson made a big jump last season with 13.3 points, eight rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. He led the Big 12 and ranked sixth nationally in field-goal percentage and nearly opted for the NBA Draft. He instead chose to return to Baylor and make the most of the senior year that had been set up years earlier.
Jefferson’s numbers are similar this season - 13.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.4 blocks per game and 52.4 percent shooting - but he’s doubled his assists (22) from last season and is shooting 40 percent (8-for-20) from 3-point range. He had 14 assists and was 4-for-12 from 3-point range his first three seasons.
The Bears have won their last three games to get back into NCAA Tournament consideration and Jefferson has played his best the past two games, both overtime victories. Jefferson scored a season-high 25 points and pulled down 13 rebounds Monday against Oklahoma State after finishing with 21 points and 11 rebounds against Kansas State. He had one 20-point, 10-rebound game before that this season.
“As soon as the coaches came to be about redshirting, I wanted to do it,” Jefferson said. “They didn’t want to force anything on me and they asked me if I wanted to do it. Talking to them about it, I knew it was going to be tough and, for a little while, I didn’t want to sit out. But I was coming off my freshman year when I didn’t play too much and deep down I knew if I did do it, it would make me better in the long run.”