West Virginia’s 2019 basketball season may be a lost cause, a year that will be looked back on as a trying time marbled with growing pains for a usually dominant program.
You could even argue that the Mountaineers’ gritty, three overtime win over Texas Christian on Tuesday night will amount to nothing more than a rare triumph during a season that has experienced very few.
You could say all these things, but don’t say it to West Virginia’s group of freshmen.
Jordan McCabe, who entered the TCU game averaging under three points per contest finally became the point guard West Virginia and Huggins so desperately desired.
“He’s not looking over his shoulder now,” head coach Bob Huggins said of McCabe after the Wisconsin native poured in 25 points and 11 assists in the win over TCU. “That makes all the difference in the world. When you know you’re going to play and you can play through some mistakes, you still may get your butt chewed out, but you’re allowed to play through some things.”
McCabe did commit his fair share of mistakes. The freshman coughed up the ball four times and found himself in foul trouble late in the game when the Mountaineers needed him most. Yet, with guard Brandon Knapper sidelined with a neck injury and Jermaine Haley on the court as well, Huggins was forced to keep McCabe on the floor.
In the end, through the mistakes and with McCabe running the offense, West Virginia finally took a step forward.
“100-percent. It shows our fight,” McCabe commented on the improvement the Mountaineers have seen over the past month. “We talked about that going into it. After the things that we’ve been through, it’s just going to be a fight. The guys that coach Huggs brings in should be fighters. We are fighters. We just kinda have to to dig deep and find that. You saw it tonight.”
After totaling 39 points and 15 assists over the last two contests, McCabe is proving that West Virginia is better with him on the court. Luckily for Huggins, he’s not the only one that the Mountaineers can turn to for leadership – and offense.
“He takes a beating every game, but he’s strong enough he can get through it,” Huggins said of freshman forward Derek Culver after his 22 point and 21 rebound performance.
Culver’s eye-popping stat line on Tuesday night was the first time a Mountaineer player has tallied at least 20 points and 20 boards in a single game since Maurice Robinson did so in 1977. Moreover, Huggins believes his freshman stud hasn’t even reached his full potential yet.
“Everything is kind of new to Derek. Whenever he actually learns how to play, he’s going to be an absolute monster because he doesn’t have a clue right now… [H]e’s doing it all on raw athletic ability and determination right now.”
Huggins isn’t the only one impressed with Culver’s play of late.
“He’s an athletic freak. He makes up for a lot of our mistakes,” McCabe praised about Culver.
So, what has changed? Why, after losing upperclassmen Beetle Bolden and Sagaba Konate due to injuries and the dismissals of Esa Ahmad and Wesley Harris, is West Virginia playing basketball comparable to the Jevon Carter era?
Apart from lengthening the leash Huggins has wrapped around his core of young stars, the Mountaineers are starting to pay attention to their future Hall of Fame coach.
“They listen,” Huggins said. “When you’re talking, you got ten eyes on you. Before – when you’re talking – you got two guys over in the corner talking about something and I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about and some guy is over there getting a drink of water. It’s the atmosphere of old. It’s the atmosphere that made us pretty doggone good.”
The atmosphere that Huggins is referencing to is certainly different than it was just a month ago. The culture that once felt absent that Jevon Carter embodied during his time in Morgantown seems to have a sequel. After three overtimes and 50 minutes of playing time, McCabe tore a page straight out of Carter’s book, heading back to the Colosseum for extra work at the foul line.
For a program and a state that cherishes and adores hard work over pure talent, McCabe and Culver are single-handedly re-writing the Mountaineer’s season by listening more and working harder than they ever have before.
But, is it too little too late?
“I told them yesterday, we’re not giving up. That’s not in my DNA and there is a lot of them that I don’t think it’s in their DNA. We need to make a run here at the end of the year and we need to go to the [Big 12] tournament and win. I don’t think a postseason deal is totally out of the question.”