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Bock: West Virginia’s Season a Success After Clinching Tournament Berth



Photo: Kelsie LeRose / WVSN

What a roller coaster ride it has been for West Virginia’s basketball program over the past 12 months. With WVU officially clinching a spot in the NCAA Tournament, I’m ready to say that this season was a success for the program.

Before you react, no, this should not be the standard for the program. West Virginia’s history in basketball deserves to have the expectations to advance in the NCAA Tournament each year. With that being said, when you really sit back and reflect on the past calendar year, this team has made strides.

If you’re still not bought in, let me try to convince you.

Let’s go back to last season, West Virginia heads home after being embarrassed by Kansas in Kansas City. The Mountaineers decline a CBI bid and end their season at 16-17. West Virginia has five fifth-year seniors graduate and lost Jalen Bridges, Isaiah Cottrell and Sean McNeil to the transfer portal. At this point, Bob Huggins and his coaching staff never made any splashes in this new portal concept. Many fans and media questioned whether or not Huggins could handle the new era of college basketball.

A year ago, this team had just five players left: Kedrian Johnson, Kobe Johnson, Seth Wilson, James Okonkwo and Jamel King. That’s it. One starter and four undeveloped freshmen.

What did Huggins and his staff do? They bought into the transfer portal.

Jay Kuntz, who was promoted to director of recruiting last offseason, dipped his toes into the transfer portal. Kuntz was able to help bring Erik Stevenson, Emmitt Matthews, Tre Mitchell and Joe Toussaint to Morgantown for this season. Kuntz wasn’t the only staff promotion or change in the last year.

West Virginia moved on from long-time assistant Larry Harrison in January, hiring DerMarr Johnson to take an assistant role for the first time in his coaching career. Josh Eilert, who has been with Huggins since his year at Kansas State, was promoted to a main assistant after Erik Martin left to take the South Carolina State head coaching job. Other staff moves included Trent Michaels being promoted to operations coordinator, Alex Ruoff hired as a graduate assistant and Jared Kortsen hired as the new video coordinator.

Not only did this roster flip, this coaching staff also did as well.

I think people forget how bad last season was. When you consider what this team was left with after an under .500 finish, it’s pretty impressive that West Virginia bounced back with a new group.

This past year was for Huggins to learn and adapt to the transfer portal era. When you bring in guys from all different levels of college basketball, it can take a while for a team to really mesh well. At the beginning of this season, this group did a really good job of working together. You would’ve thought this group played together already.

The season started to shift once Stevenson lost his confidence at Oklahoma State earlier in conference play. That’s when West Virginia had their lowest of lows. WVU started 0-5 in Big 12 play, and this was around the time of the Harrison firing. I remember many people questioning Huggs and if he really lost his touch. A win at home against TCU and a road win over Texas Tech really catapulted this team back into talks to make the tournament. Stevenson gained his mojo back and has never looked back.

Since the winless conference start, WVU finished the year 9-7. The Mountaineers have two losses in the past three weeks: Kansas in Lawrence by a basket and the Jayhawks again in Kansas City. This team really has turned it around with Stevenson, Matthews and Johnson playing their best basketball of the year.

Now, West Virginia returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2021.

“I think a lot of people wrote this team off a long time ago,” Huggins said Sunday night. “But those people didn’t see the transformation in those guys in terms of their want to win, they’re playing together, they’re looking out more for each other. I thought they really came together.”

I am by no means saying this team will return to the glory days of Kevin Pittsnogle, Da’Sean Butler or Jevon Carter, but this program has made progress in the last 12 months and should be acknowledged for it.

Ironically, the transfer portal which Huggins took some time to embrace, could help him keep West Virginia competitive during the rest of his coaching tenure.

West Virginia has found a formula to build a tournament team in the new era. Now let’s see if they can consistently do it.

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