Things can’t get much worse for head coach Bob Huggins and the West Virginia men’s basketball team than it did in 2018.
The Mountaineers reached the proverbial bottom last season after losing 21 games and enduring through a brow-raising amount of attrition. Entering year 38 as a head coach, Huggins will do well to bury last year’s dismal record as far back in his mind as he can by providing a successful campaign this year. And after welcoming in a host of talented newcomers and reassuring fans that last year’s outcome won’t be duplicated, there’s a fair amount of palpable buzz surrounding the Mountaineers in 2019.
Are the Mountaineers due for a bounce back season? Can West Virginia compete for a Big XII title? Or was last year just the beginning?
Let’s take a look at the 2019 edition of the Mountaineers men’s basketball team and the upcoming season.
Starting Five and Rotation
Luckily for Huggins and West Virginia, the Mountaineers return four starters from a year ago. Jermaine Haley, Jordan McCabe, Emmitt Matthews Jr., and Derek Culver all return in 2019 after leading the Mountaineers to the second round of the CBI last year. The real excitement, however, is stemmed from the introduction of former 5-star and McDonald’s All-American center Oscar Tshiebwe. Along with Oscar, the Mountaineers brought in transfers Taz Sherman, Gabe Osabuohien, Sean McNeil while also recruiting freshmen Miles McBride and Jalen Bridges. Although Bridges is redshirting and we’re still awaiting word on Osabuohien’s eligibility for 2019, here is what the 2019 rotation could look like.
Guard – Jordan McCabe (Soph.) Kaukauna, WI
Guard – Chase Harler (Senior) Moundsville, WV
Forward – Emmitt Matthews Jr. (Soph) Tacoma, WA
Forward – Jermaine Haley (Senior) Vancouver, BC
Forward – Derek Culver (Soph.) Youngstown, OH
Guard – Miles McBride (Freshman) Cincinnati, OH
Guard – Brandon Knapper (Soph.) South Charleston, WV
Guard – Sean McNeil (Soph) Union, KY
Guard – Taz Sherman (Junior) Missouri City, TX
Forward – Logan Routt (Senior) Cameron, WV
Forward – Oscar Tshiebwe (Freshman) Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo
In short, I expect the four returning starters to assume their roles from a year ago. Yet the best version of the Mountaineers may include more than two role players playing major minutes. The first is quite obvious. Oscar was an All-American in high school for a reason. He’s probably boasting the highest “motor” on the team and seems to love rebounding the ball – two items Huggins refuses to keep off the court. Fellow freshman McBride has also shelved himself a decent amount of praise as well. He’s said to have plus skills on both sides of the court and rebounds the ball well for a guard. The third guy pushing for starter’s minutes is actually a pair of junior college transfers. Taz Sherman has been tabbed as one of the most athletic guys on West Virginia’s roster, having the ability to attack the basket with ease from the wing. Sean McNeil, who has battled through an illness over the summer, is heralded as the best shooter when he’s on the court. This leaves Routt and Knapper scrapping for the remaining minutes. Knapper has shown a quick first step and the ability to drill an open three while Routt has been the poster child for consistency during his time in Morgantown. Neither will lose you a game, but it’s hard to see them being big-time contributors.
I’m leaving Arkansas transfer Gabe Osabuohien off this list for now. Huggins claims he’s one of the best at defending on the perimeter and has a knack for getting to the foul line, so should he become eligible, his defense would be a welcomed addition.
Season Preview and Prediction
Rhode Island, St. John’s, Ohio State, and Pitt headline what will be another challenging non-conference schedule for the Mountaineers. I expect West Virginia to split those four games with wins over Pitt and Rhode Island. Playing Ohio State in Cleveland and St. John’s in New York are as good as true away games in hostile environments for the Mountaineers, but valuable learning experiences. Huggins will also take his team abroad to participate in the Cancun Challenge – where West Virginia will take on Wichita State or South Carolina on November 27th after contests against Northern Colorado, Boston and Northern Iowa. West Virginia will wrap-up non-conference play against Missouri in the SEC/BIG XII challenge.
Non-conference record — 10-3
Big XII Play
Once again, Kansas will be favored to win the Big XII conference despite the numerous recruiting violations questions surrounding Bill Self’s program. The Jayhawks also serve as the opening conference game for West Virginia in Lawrence. Claiming to be the toughest conference in all of college basketball, the Big XII will once again field 10 potential NCAA tournament teams, meaning if West Virginia plans on returning to the “Big Dance”, it will want to finish above .500 in conference play. Luckily, Big XII foes have a fickle time playing in the Coliseum, giving credence to the idea that every home game for the Mountaineers should and could be a win. Since joining the Big XII, the Mountaineers have home conference record of 42-23, including a 5-2 record at home against the Jayhawks. I’m also picking the Mountaineers to sweep TCU and Oklahoma State.
Big XII Record — 10-8 ; 5th place finish
So, the big question is really whether or not West Virginia can return to the NCAA tournament. A 20-11 regular season record is probably good enough to be in the conversation. Even a .500 record in conference play will good enough for the Mountaineers to have a compelling argument. If the Mountaineers make it to the semi-finals of the Big XII tournament again AND boast a winning record in conference play like I predict, it won’t even be a question.
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