Coming into the season, expectations were about as high as you could make them for West Virginia. The team returned essentially 90% of its roster from the year before from a group that won 21 games. The Mountaineers were poised to have the most dominant frontcourt in the country with Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe and a backcourt that Huggins really liked with how well his guards could shoot.
If we're being honest, it almost felt like it was Final Four or bust for this team at the beginning of the year. The expectations may have been a tad unfair considering how young this team still was but nonetheless, a deep run in March was expected.
Toward the end of non-conference play, everything changed. Sophomore big man Oscar Tshiebwe, only the 2nd McDonald's All-American in the program's history, shocked fans with his decision to enter the transfer portal. This forced Huggins and his staff to change everything on the fly and play a four-out, one-in offensive concept.
Just a few days later, promising freshman big Isaiah Cottrell was lost for the season with an Achilles injury. All of a sudden, the Mountaineers went from thinking Final Four to hoping they could adjust quick enough to still be able to make the NCAA Tournament. There was no depth in the frontcourt and to this day, Huggins will say that losing Cottrell hurt more than Tshiebwe. How so? Well, Oscar was not playing to the level that we all know he can, and playing him alongside Culver just wasn't working. Cottrell is the most skilled big man that West Virginia has and is able to do things away from the basket. He can pull up from mid-range, behind the arc, and can also iso his guy if need be. No other big on the roster has those tools which is why Cottrell's absence hurt the most.
In spite of everything that happened with the roster changes and injuries, as usual, Huggins found a way to not only get his guys going again but had them as high as No. 6 in the country and maybe a couple of wins away from earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. As you know, WVU fell in overtime to Baylor, sneaked past TCU, and then fell twice to Oklahoma State.
Nine of the Mountaineers' 10 losses were by five points or less which is pretty incredible to think about given all the circumstances. They went toe to toe with Gonzaga early in the year and then nearly beat Baylor. I don't know how many teams in the country if given the opportunity would be able to say that. And again, West Virginia wasn't even at full strength for one of those games.
I understand that when you lose in the 2nd round of the tournament to a No. 11 seed that barely made the field is a bit disappointing but I don't think that will be what defines this team moving forward. They were able to win some tough games including going 7-2 on the road in conference play, which is not easy to do. They also found their identity and with much of the group expected to return next year, they won't have to spend part of next season searching for that.
Jordan McCabe and Emmitt Matthews Jr. both entered the transfer portal this past week but if WVU can see the return of Gabe Osabuohien and at least one of the two guards (Sean McNeil/Taz Sherman), they will be one of the favorites to win the Big 12.
So, was it a successful season for the Mountaineers? Short answer: No, they didn't win the last game of the year. Long answer: Yes, considering the circumstances it was a masterful coaching job by Huggins and his staff.
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