With freshman guard Kerr Kriisa’s nine-game suspension reduced by the NCAA, the West Virginia men’s basketball team will be forced to make changes at the point guard position in an area where numbers are thin.
Junior point guard Kobe Johnson will take over for Kriisa and lead WVU at the position. Johnson was hired by former coach Bob Huggins and is now in his third year with the program, but there were no speculations about his departure despite the turmoil.
“It’s been tough. There’s been a lot of things going on, but (the team) stayed together. I love it here. Staying here, that’s what the city needs,” said Johnson.
Now Johnson has been given the opportunity to start playing for the Mountaineers again. He has started WVU’s last eight games and has experience as a longtime member of the program.
Johnson was given this opportunity because of Kriisa’s aforementioned suspension, which was handed down by the NCAA due to the “impermissible benefits” he received while in Arizona.
The penalty puts Kriisa on a nine-game suspension, but he is still able to train and travel with the team and advise his teammates. Interim coach Josh Eilert says having Kriisa is still very important.
“He (Kriisa) is one of our captains and he can do an amazing job coaching (Jeremiah Bembry) and giving Kobe (Johnson) direction in running the program,” said Eilert.
Kriisa, a native of Estonia, transferred to West Virginia from Arizona during the offseason but won’t be able to step on the field until the Mountaineers face Massachusetts on the road on Dec. 16.
Although one player was settled but another benefited from this difficulty which is Johnson. He understands that in this situation he is the next man up and he said he wants to be a leader during this transition.
“When I got the news it hurt, but I have to take it seriously and be the next man up. Prepare these guys and lead them,” Johnson said.
When it comes to the coaching staff and the changes they are forced to make, Eilert remains confident in what Johnson brings to the table.
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Now a combined 61 games at West Virginia, Johnson is ready for what this new role entails and in his opinion, has improved as a player over the course of the season.
“When I came in, I had no experience,” Johnson said. “I learned from the previous guys, had a great summer and continued to work. Now I feel like I’m a more experienced player and I’m ready to go. I feel better all around offensively and learning the game.”
As a point guard in basketball however, many aspects of the role go beyond your skill but also include your intangible qualities, demonstrated both on and off the court. Johnson is focused on maintaining a positive mindset and his continued development.
“I’ve got to be a lot better now that Kerr (Kriisa) is gone. I still have to see that and I’m still learning things but I’ve got to get better,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to keep a positive mindset, just trying to keep those guys up and be a really good team.”
From an outside perspective, Eilert noted the continued hard work and grind Johnson has shown over the past three seasons and said players with that mindset and mentality will eventually shine.
“His confidence levels are a lot higher than last year. Going up from high school to juniors with a staff that trusts him a lot and will depend on him, that gave him confidence,” Eilert said. “They keep grinding, they keep showing up every day and eventually they’ll shine.”
Between Kriisa and Johnson, Eilert says there is a give and take between the two players in terms of their abilities, especially in defense.
“His length (Johnson) as a linebacker is better than Kerr (Kriisa) and his size and athleticism,” said Eilert. “You can’t send him because he’s a powerful guard, so something’s a given.”
Rounding out the point guard spot alongside Johnson is redshirt freshman Jeremiah Bembry, who transferred to West Virginia from Florida State and has yet to appear in a college basketball game after redshirting last season.
Eilert said Bembry gained experience playing on a shutout team against Vanderbilt and that West Virginia could turn to him if that situation arose.
He also said that returning guard Seth Wilson can provide relief at the point guard position if needed.
“Jeremiah is a young player, he’s talented but he hasn’t played a college game yet,” Eilert said. “The closest thing he has is the minutes we gave him in the Vanderbilt scrimmage. Maybe we should have given him more minutes against George Mason but we can get him right on the offensive end and I’m not asking for much. Get him to put the ball where it needs to go. Seth (Wilson) can also take some pressure off Kobe ( Johnson.).”