West Virginia left Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic champions, and is currently 3-0 on the season.
The tournament didn’t feature the names that could have propelled the Mountaineers as a legitimate early season national contender but got tested by three well-coached basketball programs and showed they could win without playing their best.
Despite Huggins assuring all through preseason camp that the Mountaineers are a better shooting team, I most certainly had my reservations going into the season. They shot less than 30% from the behind the arc last season, and their scoring droughts became infamous, but even though the numbers don’t reflect it (FG: 41.1%, 3PT: 31.7%), they did play better offensively.
It was evident in the first week of college basketball that programs missed the preseason competitions (secret scrimmages and exhibitions) to work out some of the kinks and get the young guys some much-needed experience. So, the start of the season was a bit slow for everyone around the country.
For West Virginia, they started slow on both ends of the floor. The communication wasn’t there on defense and got exposed in the opening round against South Dakota State and the championship game versus Western Kentucky, but Gabe Osabuohien’s tenacity gave the Mountaineers the fuel to lock down the Hilltoppers in the final 15 minutes to overcome a 10-point deficit.
Offensively, the Mountaineers were a nightmare in the first game. Most notably, the misses around the rim from Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe, although Culver dominated the last two games averaging 19 points and is making an early case for all-conference status. They have to learn to go up strong and finish on a more consistent basis. Culver did that the past two games although I would like him and Tshiebwe to dunk more.
In the semifinals, VCU hounded the Mountaineer guards with their pressure, and it gave them trouble, committing 21 turnovers. Huggins said they had not worked on full court pressure much up to that point but that needs to be cleaned up quickly,
Tshiebwe never got going and had a quiet 11 points and 16 rebounds versus VCU. He reverted to last season, playing too fast and never got his feet under himself, but still played with the energy and effort, we’ve come accustomed to by the sophomore.
Deuce McBride started the season with 23 points and, throughout the tournament, proved he is still the most consistent player on the team and now leads the Mountaineers in scoring, averaging 16.3 points per contest.
Sean McNeil and Taz Sherman have no hesitation in shooting the ball, and that is precisely what this team needs. Sherman was an efficient 7-11 from behind the arc and had big buckets in some critical moments in the three-game stretch, and is averaging 11.7 points per game. McNeil’s numbers aren’t where they need to be, but as the Mountaineers build more chemistry, he will get into a better rhythm. Still, he is third on the team in scoring at 13.7 points per outing.
Emmitt Matthews Jr showed flashes of his potential we have all witnessed the last two years and continues to show he is a proven shooter. I think most would agree that he needs to be consistently aggressive and attack the basket. He is a threat on any given night to score 20-plus points.
Jordan McCabe lost his starting point guard role to McBride, but he came in and settled the offense down when Deuce got a little too sped up. McCabe, like Tshiebwe, reverted to some bad habits from last season but continued to battle. There will be points throughout the season where he wins the Mountaineers some games.
As for the highly anticipated newcomers, it didn’t come as a surprise that they played very little and struggled once on the floor. Again, it was the first competition of the season. They will eventually find their way.
Overall, West Virginia didn’t play their best, and the first three games are in no way an indicator of how they will play throughout the season; it’s just too early. However, starting the season finding ways to win over three times that have the potential to be in the NCAA tournament is a good start to the season.
West Virginia faces No. 1 Gonzaga Wednesday night at 7:00 on ESPN in the Jimmy V Classic.
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