Key Returners: Derek Culver, Emmitt Matthews Jr., Jordan McCabe, Jermaine Haley, Chase Harler
Key Losses: Beetle Bolden (transfer), Lamont West (transfer), Sagaba Konate (pro), Esa Ahmad (booted), Wesley Harris (booted)
Key Newcomers: Oscar Tshiebwe, Taz Sherman (JUCO), Sean McNeil (JUCO), Miles McBride, Ethan Richardson (JUCO)
Editor’s note - Since this preview was posted, the Mountaineers got a commitment from forward Jalen Bridges, who also reclassified into the 2019 recruiting class. He may redshirt this year, but if not, he provides some versatile depth at the 4.
Outlook: Hang on, we can’t start this preview until I finish paying my bookie all of the money I lost on West Virginia last year…
Alright, thousands of dollars and a broken leg later, let’s do this. The Weave may not have been further off on a team last year than the Mountaineers, whom we ranked 14th in our Top 40 countdown, and our stubbornness in sticking with Bob Huggins did not pan out in consensus bets, either. Of course, we weren’t the only ones: the AP Poll had them 13th, CBS 13th, SI 13th, and NBC 17th; unfortunately, injuries (Sagaba Konate missed most of the year, James Bolden was rarely fully healthy) and poor chemistry completely derailed the Mountaineers. Despite how wrong we were last year, we’re sneaking them back into our Top 40 with expectations for a bigtime bounceback, ready once again to put our faith in Huggins and his coaching, an added year of experience for several freshmen, and a team that just fits together better than last year’s edition, on and off the court.
Many of West Virginia’s issues stemmed from point guard play: transitioning from an All-American senior in Jevon Carter to two freshmen (Jordan McCabe and Brandon Knapper) predictably had some major hiccups. Huggins rarely runs any pick-and-roll for his lead guards, instead trying to space the floor and allow them to attack single coverage via the drive, and the two rookies struggled to consistently beat their defenders. That led to turnovers and bad shots, setting the stage for the Mountaineers to finish dead last in the Big 12 in offense. Those issues started to alleviate later in the year, though, as McCabe seized the starting PG job and Knapper gave better minutes off the bench. Both need to see big increases in their bleak shooting percentages, but the added year of experience will be invaluable for both players.
The point guard issues were also evident on the defensive end, as Carter set the tone for Huggins’s pressure, and McCabe and Knapper simply aren’t the same kind of ballhawks. In fact, a large chunk of the roster did not fit the typical Press Virginia identity, and as a result, Huggins sat in the half court much more frequently as the year wore on. The overall season numbers tell the tale, with WVU pressing less – and less effectively – than in recent years:
Another issue with the press: the Mountaineers lacked an effective “trigger man” to put on the in-bounder and set the first trap, a role in which players like Nathan Adrian and Jonathan Holton have excelled in the past. The most likely candidates, Esa Ahmad and Wesley Harris, could not be bothered to embrace the role or the team in general, and they were eventually booted for “violations of athletic department policies.” This article from DubV Nation, a West Virginia sports website, gives a scathing take on Ahmad’s questionable commitment to WVU’s pressing tactics:
One big problem I’ve always had with Esa was his lack of effort. Just by watching him, it seemed that he never bought into “Press Virginia.” He would constantly get beaten down the floor when running the press, he was always slow rotating to help and his lack of lateral quickness allowed him to get beat off the dribble more than he should.
Jermaine Haley could be the answer, as his versatility and size at 6’7 should give guards problems when pinned into a corner. Still, the answer with this roster points towards less pressing overall. Instead, the Mountaineers should look to assert their will in the paint on both ends, where sophomore Derek Culver and freshman Oscar Tshiebwe will be one of the country’s most physically dominant front courts.
Besides the press, the other constant year after year under Huggins has been ferocious offensive rebounding. WVU has ranked in the top 10 nationally in O-Reb Rate in 9 of the past 11 seasons, and I fully expect this year’s group to be in the top 5. Culver and Tshiebwe together is like the scene in Furious 6 where Agent Luke Hobbs (the Rock) and Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) team up for the first time, two physical specimens beating even the most imposing opponents to a pulp. They don’t offer much floor spacing, but when the other team can’t rebound any missed shots, does it matter? For depth purposes, Huggins also has big bodies Logan Routt and JUCO transfer Ethan Richardson, and we’ll see some lineups with Haley or fellow athletic wing Emmitt Matthews at the four.
The Ahmad and Harris dismissals also seemed to lift a dark cloud hanging over the West Virginia locker room. Immediately after they were booted, the Mountaineers got blitzed at Kansas (no shame in that), but they followed with game efforts against co-champ Kansas State, at Baylor (led 70-66 with three minutes left), and won a triple overtime thriller against TCU. The youngsters were growing into the vacated leadership roles, and WVU added big wins down the stretch at home vs. Iowa State and against Oklahoma and Texas Tech in the Big 12 Tournament. Heading into the CBI, Huggins was pleased with the progress the new-look team was making:
“…we are starting to play well together. They like each other. We’re passing the ball a little better. We just have to continue to improve. We have to continue to run our offense better, and we have to continue not turning it over so much. The rest of it will come. I thought defensively we were much better. I thought we competed a lot harder, and by and large, we ran pretty decent offense.” - Huggins
Huggins seemed annoyed at his press conferences for most of the year (well, more annoyed than usual), but his demeanor grew a little brighter when finally coaching a group of players that looked fully bought in.
And again this offseason, Huggins has highlighted the change around the locker room:
“This year you don’t have to coach enthusiasm,” he said. “A year ago, we had to coach effort and basketball and it’s hard to do both.” - Huggins
Alright, this preview is getting lengthy, but two newcomers on the wing – JUCO transfers Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil – merit special mention as possible difference-makers. Ranked #13 and #64, respectively, by jucorecruiting.com, both are prolific scorers (averaged 25.9ppg and 29.7ppg last year) who can give the offense an immediate boost in both creation and perimeter shooting, areas in which WVU often struggled last year. One may crack the starting lineup to give the roster balance, and if either is able to break out immediately, the Mountaineers’ ceiling raises even higher.
Bottom Line: If a few of the possible shooters (McCabe, Knapper, Sherman, McNeil, Chase Harler, Miles McBride) emerge as legitimate outside threats, West Virginia should be back in the mix in the Big 12. Culver and Tshiebwe are a terrifying duo up front, and Huggins adopting a more conservative defensive style from the season’s outset should mitigate some of last year’s issues. The Mountaineers dipped badly in 2018-19, underperforming all preseason projections, but we hope to be ahead of the curve in the other direction this year.