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The Enduring Brilliance of Jevon Carter

West Virginia’s senior star hopes to cap his college career by advancing past the Sweet 16, a stage that’s twice tripped him up. Before he takes the court, it’s worth considering his legacy—for the Mountaineers and college basketball as a whole.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Jevon Carter’s collegiate career will likely end on Friday in Boston. It’s not that no. 5 seed West Virginia can’t upset top-seeded Villanova in the Sweet 16—all signs point to that matchup turning into a track meet featuring a barrage of 3-point attempts, meaning anything could happen—I just think it’s important to recognize what’s at stake. As all sorts of other story lines have captured America’s attention during the 2018 NCAA tournament (Sister Jean, Eric Musselman’s redemption and family, UMBC’s historic upset, Sister Jean, the death of the Pac-12, Rob Gray’s brother, Sister Jean, the two Cincinnati schools choking, Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beater, Isaac Haas’s elbow, Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, and Sister Jean), West Virginia has largely been treated as an afterthought. So I want to deliver a public service announcement that the career of one of the most singular players in recent college basketball memory is on the verge of coming to a close.

Carter has become a household name over the past four years mainly by being the foundation of West Virginia’s vaunted press defense. Yet it feels like fans outside of West Virginia know him primarily for what he isn’t. He’s not great going one-on-one on offense because he doesn’t have great ballhandling skills or an explosive first step. He could hardly shoot during his first two seasons in Morgantown. He has never won a Big 12 regular-season or tournament title and never advanced past the Sweet 16, and his teams have choked away so many huge leads that it’s impossible to keep track of all the times it’s happened. Carter probably isn’t going to have a lengthy NBA career, owns a reputation for being great at defense because he gets away with fouling, and botched the final possession of the Gonzaga loss in last year’s tournament so badly that it was almost funnier than the HILARIOUS repeated jokes about his hairline or how it feels like he’s been playing college basketball forever.

These are all prevailing thoughts about Carter, and maybe they’re true to varying degrees. But with his third and final Sweet 16 game set to tip off Friday, I believe it’s important to offer one last reminder that Carter is more than just the sum of his shortcomings. In fact, the 6-foot-2 guard is the perfect embodiment of college basketball at its finest.

Let’s start with the recruiting story that West Virginia coach Bob Huggins told reporters before the Mountaineers’ first-round game against Murray State.

That one-minute-and-five-second clip sums up Carter’s legacy—he was an unheralded recruit out of the Chicago suburbs who worked his ass off to become a Mountaineers legend and one of Huggins’s most beloved players of all time. Anytime I hear about a player with a great work ethic, I tend to assume one of two things: Either that player was blessed with tremendous physical gifts that have been downplayed to make it seem like he became successful through willpower alone, or that player generally sucks and people praise his work ethic as a backhanded compliment. With Carter, somehow neither is the case. Watch him play for even a few minutes and you can tell he feels he has something to prove every time he takes the court. He never takes plays off, which is remarkable considering that he averages almost 35 minutes per game.

He also averages 17.4 points, 6.6 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.0 steals per game in 2017-18, which is staggering in its own right. To hear him tell it, Carter arrived in Morgantown with no distinct skills that set him apart from his teammates, and the only reason that he saw the floor as a freshman was because he worked so hard. It would be disingenuous to say that his debut Mountaineers campaign wasn’t good, as Carter averaged 8.1 points off the bench and was named to the Big 12’s all-defensive team. But his role as a freshman was basically to provide a ton of energy on defense and try not to screw up on offense. That he blossomed into a dominant all-around player and All-American candidate three years later is a testament to his work ethic, perseverance, and trust in Huggins’s guidance.

To understand Carter’s brilliance, look no further than January’s 89-76 rout of Oklahoma, during which he essentially destroyed the Trae Young hype machine by himself. The Sooners came to Morgantown riding a 10-game win streak and ranked no. 7 in the AP poll, while the Mountaineers were riding a 13-game win streak and ranked no. 6. Even though it was only January, Young was already a national player of the year lock. It was done. He had put up such absurd numbers in such a ridiculous manner that it was going to take a miracle for him to not run away with every major college basketball award in existence. And then Carter delivered the first big crack in Young’s armor by suffocating the freshman guard from the opening tip.

Young finished with 29 points in that game, but also recorded eight turnovers, and anyone who watched it will tell you that Carter basically swallowed him alive. That Carter was able to make a superhuman player like Young look average was incredible enough. That he also scored 17 points, dished out 10 assists, and grabbed seven rebounds in leading West Virginia to a comfortable win is mind-blowing. But that’s what Carter does. He isn’t the type to provide flashy highlights. He just makes one solid play after another, and when the buzzer sounds and you add all those plays up, it’s clear that he completely dominated.

Between the controversy surrounding the one-and-done rule, the ongoing FBI probe, and the never-ending discussion over whether college players should be paid, it’s tough to ignore that the current climate of college basketball is a breeding ground for cynicism. In the face of this, and at the risk of sounding preachy and sentimental, it’s worth acknowledging a player like Carter, who represents all this sport is supposed be about. He’s a former three-star recruit who worked his ass off for playing time, focused on defense, and improved every season until he became one of the preeminent players in America. He’s a four-time Big 12 all-defensive team member and two-time conference defender of the year; he was the national defender of the year a season ago and may well capture the award again this year; he’s won 105 career games in a West Virginia uniform and has been great in the classroom, too, having recently been named Academic All-American of the Year for the 2017-18 season. I’m not saying Hollywood should make a movie about the guy, but if college basketball were full of nothing but Jevon Carters, no one would say a bad word about the sport.

For as great as his story has been, however, he’s never been able to break through in March. And now, the final chapter of his college career is about to be written. During his two previous trips to the Sweet 16, Carter has endured nightmares of different varieties. The first was a 78-39 massacre at the hands of then-undefeated Kentucky in 2015, a blowout in which the Mountaineers went 13-of-54 from the field. The second came via that horrific final possession against Gonzaga in 2017, a moment that easily could have been set to Benny Hill’s theme music. The great news for Carter is that he couldn’t ask for a better chance to exorcise his Sweet 16 demons and forever cement himself in college basketball lore. He enters Friday’s game on an absolute tear, setting historic benchmarks by posting a stat line of 49 points, 13 assists, and 11 steals through two NCAA tournament wins, and will face off with national player of the year favorite Jalen Brunson and a Villanova team that many consider to be the national title front-runner. The Wildcats have looked unstoppable since guard Phil Booth’s return to the starting lineup on February 28, rattling off seven straight victories by an average margin of 18.1 points.

On paper, this matchup appears terrible for the Mountaineers. Both West Virginia and Villanova shoot a ton of 3-pointers, only Villanova shoots them much more effectively. The Mountaineers’ defense isn’t as good as its reputation suggests, while the Wildcats have far and away the best offense in college basketball. The odds are stacked against WVU, to the extent that it would require an extraordinary effort to pull off the upset.

As Carter prepares to bid farewell to college basketball, it’s only fitting. That’s just the way one of America’s most underappreciated stars likes it.