By Cam Huffman
Chase Connor had a scholarship offer in hand, ready to continue playing the game he loved at Radford. The Shady Spring High School basketball star, who averaged 27 points and 6.4 assists per game for the Tigers as a senior, was ready to step in right away and be a major contributor for the Highlanders and continue what had been a highlight-filled career on the hardwood.
But Connor always believed he could do more. He loved the coaches, the campus and nearly everything about Radford, but he kept wondering if he was selling himself short by not trying to compete at the highest level possible. The Big South Conference was great, but it wasn’t the ACC, Big East or Big 12.
So when West Virginia University assistant coach Larry Harrison called with an offer last April to make Connor a preferred walk-on with the Mountaineers, the first-team Class AAA all-stater quickly said yes.
With that, the debate began. Many questioned why Connor would waste his talents sitting on the bench and perhaps playing a few minutes at mop-up time — the fate of many walk-ons at major Division I programs. Few would ever get to see the picture-perfect jumper that led to Connor’s 35 points in a near upset of state finalist Woodrow Wilson in a Class AAA sectional game last winter.
But Connor didn’t listen. Instead, he went to work proving the doubters wrong. He admits that his first couple of weeks in Morgantown, training under basketball strength and conditioning guru Andy Kettler, were “awful.” The speed of the game and the expectations in the weight room were at a level he had never experienced, but he never questioned the decision to become a Mountaineer.
Slowly, his body, and his mind began to adjust to life as a Division I athlete, and meeting the demands of Kettler, WVU head coach Bob Huggins and the rest of the staff became easier.
“Once I realized that, no matter what, I had to wake up and come do it every day, it got easier,” said Connor on Wednesday, before a practice in preparation for Friday’s season opener against Mount Saint Mary’s at 8 p.m. in Morgantown. “Once you get in the right mindset, you get mentally strong. Then it becomes a lot easier and it’s not as much of an annoyance.”
With a better understanding of his duties and how to perform them, Connor set out to prove that he belonged on the floor with the other Mountaineers, many of whom had been recruited by basketball powers all around the country. He knew he’d have to do something special to catch the coaches’ attention as a walk-on, so he gave maximum effort at every practice
Apparently the coaches noticed.
During Monday’s 89-70 exhibition win over Fairmont State, Connor got on the floor not in mop-up time with the lead well in hand, but instead just 7 minutes into the game with the score 11-9 in favor of the Mountaineers.
“The adrenaline was pumping pretty crazy,” said Connor of his first time playing in front of the fans at the WVU Coliseum. “I was a little nervous when (Huggins) told me to get in, but once I got in I felt fine. It was just playing basketball like it always has been.”
While other walk-ons saw limited action — Tyrone Hughes played 2 minutes at the end of the game and Greenbrier East High School graduate Richard Romeo, in his second season as a WVU walk-on, saw only 1 minute — Connor was on the floor for 18 minutes, actually seeing more time than scholarship freshman Brandon Watkins. He scored three points, dished out an assist and grabbed a rebound.
“I didn’t think I’d get to play that much,” Connor admitted. “But when he called my name, I went out there and did what I could.
“I only went 1-for-5 (all from behind the 3-point line) and I could have shot a little better. But for the first time, I think I did OK.”
Connor’s Shady Spring family was certainly impressed. His dad, Chuck, was in attendance at the game, and Chase said he received congratulatory text messages from former teammates, coaches and friends back in Raleigh County, many of whom watched on ROOT Sports as Connor made his WVU debut.
“They’ve been texting me and stuff telling me how proud they are,” he said. “They’re really excited to see me on TV.”
Connor said his time on the floor could have increased because of a shin injury that kept sophomore guard Terry Henderson on the bench against the Falcons. Henderson is expected to be back by Friday, but Connor said he’s still expecting to be in the mix if he continues to put in the hard work and improve his game.
“It definitely gives you a bigger urge to fight for a position and put in more work,” he said of the minutes against FSU. “It requires a lot of hard work.
“I just have to play smart and do what I can do. I can’t try to do too much. I have to know the plays and play defense. They don’t want me to do the things I can’t do. I just have to do the things I can do, and I should be in the mix.”
“I think Chase is going to play all year,” affirmed Huggins. “I don’t think that playing Chase in the first half is going to be anything out of the ordinary. He’s a guy they’ve got to guard, and he passes the ball fairly well.
“He’s like the rest of them. He’s got to get better defensively and rebound better. But that’s all of them. Chase is very much in our rotation.”
Connor believes this year’s Mountaineer team can far exceed the 13-19 record that the 2012-13 version amassed in its first as a Big 12 member. He said his teammates, who were on last year’s squad, have told him the chemistry is much better this year and everybody acts like they want to be there. Even Huggins’ attitude, they tell him, is completely different.
“We’ve come a long way since the first day of practice,” Connor said. “Our team chemistry is going well, and we’re starting to play together and understand each other. So I think we can be a lot better if we pay attention and do the right things.”
Connor hopes he can play a significant role in that turnaround, but as the season begins, he’s taking a team-first approach.
“Anytime (Coach Huggins) calls my name, I just want to come in and do the best I can for the team,” said the 6-foot-1, 190-pound freshman. “I want to contribute in any way possible, whether it’s setting a pick, making a shot or playing defense. Whatever he needs me to do, I’m going to come in and do it.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.