Basketball Season is back! It feels like it’s been so long since I’ve watched a college basketball game. The greatest month in sports was cut short as the pandemic struck the country and cancelled the end of the conference championships and put an end to the possibility of a Mountaineer Final Four run. The NCAA has announced they have plans for a one location bubble for the tournament this year, so we should be able to watch what the 2020-2021 Mountaineers can do come March.
The team had an up and down year, jumping out to a 12-1 record with the only loss coming to St. John’s at Madison Square Garden. Even that game showed hope, as the Mountaineers clawed back from down 9 with under 4 minutes to play to tie the game. A questionable foul call with 5 seconds left gave St. John’s the win.
As Big 12 play started, the Mountaineers really showed how stifling their defense can be. They were able to hold 6 of their first 7 opponents under 60 points (including the Big 12/SEC Challenge) and 2 of those were under 50. Depth is always a problem when playing this team. Huggins has been able to create a deep team that competes on every possession because they know there are guys that can come in and give them a breather without much of a drop off.
The one area the Mountaineers struggled at later in the year was on the offensive end. Without much outside scoring, teams could really focus on stopping the fire power of Culver and Tshiebwe. As good as Gabe Osabuohien is on the defensive end, it made it more difficult at times on the other end because he was another player that was not much of a threat. This led to the Mountaineers losing 6 of 7 and scoring a season low 49 points in a loss to Kansas in Morgantown.
The Mountaineers have spent the offseason doing their best to fix that problem. All of the news out of Morgantown is about the depth and improved shooting ability of this team. One thing that showed to be a problem between last year and the year before was the decline in scoring ability of Jordan McCabe. I love what he does to facilitate the offense and get guys in the right spot. He really is an extension of Bob Huggins when he is on the floor. But scoring 3.1 points per game and shooting 20.9% from behind the arc really put the team in a tough position. Rewind to his freshman year, he was given a big role once the season came off the rails. He came in for the last 10 games of the year and averaged 13.5 points per game, 5 assists per game, and shot 38.2% from the three point line. Everyone expected to see that type of performance once again but he found himself in a slump for much of the season. With the way this team is constructed this year, we don’t need him to be the scorer he was during his freshman year. If he can get back to shooting that percentage from deep and facilitates the rest of the offense, the Mountaineers will be in a very good position.
The scoring should be able to come from the wings this year. Miles McBride showed that he was an incredible spark plug being the first player off the bench. Now stepping in to a starting role, he will need to show that he can do it right from the tip and be a leader on the offensive end. He is the best player on the team at getting his own shot and is lethal from mid range. Rumblings around college basketball have seen him jump up draft boards for next season, currently sitting at #58 on the Madness 2021 NBA Draft Rankings. Some even have said that he may end up being a higher pick than Big O. We haven’t even mentioned his defensive ability. He has spent some of the offseason working with Jevon Carter which can only improve from an already great freshman season. I expect him to be in the top 3 scorers for this team once again and continue to show his dominance in shutting down the other team’s best players.
It’s crazy to think that I’ve made it this far into the preview without really diving in to how important Derrick Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe are for this team. But that is how reliable they are. You know what you are going to get from them night in and night out. Big O led the team with 11.2 points per game and 9.3 rebounds per game while Culver was not far behind with 10.4 points and 8.6 rebounds.
From the sounds of it, they are working a little better in practice on being on the floor at the same time. If they are able to play off of each other in more of an inside/outside role, this team elevates to a new level. Part of that falls on the head coach. As much as I love Bob Huggins, one thing I have been against for years has been the style of offense this team runs as its “base”. West Virginia loves to rebound the basketball on the offensive end. A lot of that comes from the plays they run though. The paint is typically filled with at least two, sometimes three WVU players with one on each block and one at the top of the key or free throw line. When a shot goes up, all those players are in position to attack the glass. Guys like Culver and Tshiebwe are already elite at offensive rebounding but it helps being put in the right position.
Where this is going is something we saw in the last game of the season against Baylor. For much of the season, especially during this team’s struggles, the paint got clogged down with 3 offensive players and their defenders in a small area. This made it tough for either of Culver or Tshiebwe to have room to make a move if given the ball. What you saw against Baylor was a better approach at spreading the floor, playing more of a 4 out 1 in style. This gave the bigs room to operate and really helped the guards find driving lanes with the paint not as filled. It excited me to see the switch happen in a big game and hopefully continue into the postseason. I hope this trend continues to give the whole team an opportunity to flourish at what they excel at.
Emmitt Matthews rounds out the starting five and may be the Mountaineers most underrated player. He started out last season as the team’s go to scorer; getting into double figures is 6 of their first 10 games. A cold spell unlike one I’ve ever seen hit in mid December and you really didn’t see the same type of performance until the final game against Baylor. Matthews went on a 7 game streak without a three-pointer, shooting 0-11 in that span. Also during that span, he went 11 games where we only saw him score above 6 points one time. He can be electric at times and really has the body to be a special player. I hope he was able to correct some things in the offseason and get back to being the player we saw at the beginning of the year. The amount of scoring ability that this team shows when everything is clicking is something we’ve never seen in Morgantown.
The bench plays a huge role on a Bob Huggins’ team that legitimately could go 12 deep this year. I think once you get into Big 12 play, you may see that shrink down to 10 to allow players to get into more of a rhythm on the offensive end, but foul trouble will once again not really be a problem for this team. It is just plug and play if someone needs to take a seat. Jalen Bridges may be the first one off the bench and all we have to go off of is what you’re hearing from Huggins and other sources around the team. The redshirt freshman spent all of last season practicing with the team, getting bigger, and learning a lot going up against one of the fiercest defenses in the country. Huggins said for much of last year that he may be the best scorer on this team and should really provide a good spark off the bench as McBride’s role needs to be replaced. You could see him in critical times as the main option down the stretch of games. The other guards that are sure to be fan favorites once again are Sean McNeil and Taz Sherman. Taz reportedly shot 8-8 from three in the scrimmage last week, ending with 27 points helping the white team to a victory. Both of these guys know their role and play it very well.
Gabe Osabuohien returns and is probably my favorite player on this team. He doesn’t do anything flashy but I trust him more than anyone else on this team. He knows he is out there to harass players on the defensive end. He creates so much chaos and is incredible at finding the ball, leading the Mountaineers in steals last year. He always seems to be in the right place. Charges taken needs to be a stat added to the box score because that is an area he shines in.
To finish out, we have the newcomers. Isaah Cottrell was the #75 recruit in the country from Huntington Prep. He brings some needed depth in the front court with Logan Routt graduating. Other additions include Taj Thweat another forward from Wildwood Catholic in New Jersey and Kedrian Johnson a junior college transfer.
The Mountaineers are supposed to open up the season on November 25th. Texas A&M was supposed to be their first round opponent but have opted out of the tournament. South Dakota has seen a steep incline of COVID cases over the last month. If the Mountaineers also choose to opt out of the tournament, their season opener will be December 2nd against Youngstown State. Other notable matchups out of the conference schedule include the Big East/Big 12 battle at Georgetown and the SEC/Big 12 challenge against Florida. The conference schedule is expected to start December 18th against the Iowa State Cyclones.
This team is poised to be in the top 15 all year long. As long as this team doesn’t fall into the slump they did last year, many people are expecting a run in March from this squad. I think they’ll come out hot and win the Crossover Classic and be undefeated going into conference play. I have the final record at 21-6. This should leave them in a pretty good place to get a top 2 or 3 seed in the the tournament and try to make another run to a Final Four.