The much-anticipated West Virginia Mountaineer basketball season is upon us. The Mountaineers open their season Wednesday at 7:00 pm EST on ESPN2 in the opening round of the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic versus the South Dakota State Jackrabbits.
West Virginia arrived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Monday evening. The team all tested negative for COVID-19, and West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins is pleased with how they’re handling the event.
“It’s been great here,” said Huggins. “I mean, it’s exactly what we were told it was going to be. We’re in a bubble - it’s just our guys. Our guys were tested, and as expected, they’ve done a great job of taking care of themselves. The facilities here are unbelievable. The people here are great. It’s been, to this point, a really good experience. I think the only thing that would screw it up is if we didn’t win games like we’re supposed to."
The last time West Virginia took the floor was inside the WVU Coliseum in a 76-64 win over the No. 4 Baylor Bears in the season finale. Optimism surrounded the program heading into the Big 12 Conference tournament before it all came down to a crashing halt after the country shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
West Virginia returns the majority of their production headlined by the frontcourt and team-leading scorers Derek Culver (10.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and Oscar Tshiebwe (11.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg).
Huggins has repeatedly praised his team since they returned over the summer for their commitment to the program. With possibly the most talented and the deepest team he has ever had, excitement for this team has been boiling over. Naturally, the Mountaineers are ready to get the season underway.
“They’ve been great. Our guys have been as good as they can possibly be – they’re excited,” said Huggins. “We’re looking forward to playing. It’s been a long time, you know. We were sitting in Kansas City getting ready to go play in the conference tournament and got the message that nobody was playing, so it's been a long time.”
The Mountaineers will face a tough test from the Summit League preseason favorite South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits return seven of their eight leading scorers from last season, including 2019-2020 Summit League Player of the Year, senior forward Douglas Wilson (6-7, 210-lbs).
“They’re very well-coached, and I think they do a great job of spacing and running their offense,” said Huggins. “They’ve got multiple guys who can make shots. I think they’re, really, a difficult team to guard in that, they space the floor so well, and they’ve got so many guys who believe that they’re going to make shots and they pass the ball well.
“Defensively, they do a great job of making you score the ball over them.”
It’s been a rollercoaster ride since college basketball was canceled in March, but before the ball has even been tossed into the air, there has been plenty of ups and downs.
Out of the eight original teams slated to play in the tournament, only two remain; West Virginia and Memphis. The Mountaineers were initially scheduled to play Texas A&M. Northern Iowa took their place, but after some reshuffling and other programs dropping out of the tournament, West Virginia found out Sunday night that they would be playing South Dakota State in the opening round.
“I can’t say enough about the mentality of our guys during this whole thing. They’re so looking forward to playing. It was ‘Ok, we’re going to play Texas A&M, and then we’re going to play,’ and they didn’t change their attitude. Whatever we threw out there, they were readily accepted and really worked hard at it.”
Later adding, “I think we can guard anybody now. I mean, we’ve gone through four teams now that we looked at on film, broken down on film with our guys, and really actually guarded them in practice – broke down what they do. I think I some ways it was good for our guys.”
However, it’s never been about the defense but the offense. The Mountaineers struggled to consistently shoot the ball last season, shooting just 42.2% from the field and 28.6% from three-point range.
Yet, there is plenty of enthusiasm surrounding this team’s ability to score. Sophomore guard Miles “Deuce” McBride averaged 9.5 points last season, including a career-high 22 points against No. 22 Texas Tech, and finished the final three games of the regular season averaging 14.0 points in that span.
Junior forward Emmitt Matthews Jr. has shown he can take over any game and proved it early in the 2019-20 season with a 17-point performance over Pitt, then finished with a season-high 18 points against Baylor.
Then, there are shooters Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil. Both guards had an adjustment period after transferring to West Virginia via the junior college route, and their 33% shooting from behind the arc last year is not an indication of what is to come.
Someone that gets lost in the shuffle is starting point guard Jordan McCabe. The stats didn’t reflect the importance of the junior’s leadership on and off the floor, and his understanding of the offense helped his teammates offensively throughout the season. However, teammates and coaches have expressed that he has improved his shooting this offseason, so the stats may significantly jump.
A spark off the bench is senior forward Gabe Osabuohien with his tenacious defense. His willingness to put his body on the line diving for loose balls is infectious and comes up big in critical moments.
And if that’s not enough, Huggins can turn to redshirt freshman forward Jalen Bridges, junior college transfer Kedrian Johnson, and freshmen Isaiah Cottrell and Taj Thweatt.
With three games in three days, there’s a good chance we’ll see them all.
Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic Schedule
2:00 Memphis vs. St. Mary's
4:30 Northern Iowa vs. Western Kentucky
7:00 West Virginia vs. South Dakota State
9:30 VCU vs. Utah State
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