WVU Basketball Experimented with Transfer Portal, And it Showed Progress
Oh how the transfer portal can change the game. Many people criticized Bob Huggins and his coaching staff for not taking initiative in the new era of college basketball. After a miserable season in 2022, Huggins wasn’t going to let that happen again.
“I never want to think about last year again,” Huggins said earlier this season.
Many fans think negatively once they hear the phrase “transfer portal.” In basketball, it’s not rocket science to retool a team through the portal. West Virginia lost five fifth-year seniors to graduation as well as Jalen Bridges, Sean McNeil and Isaiah Cottrell to the transfer portal. West Virginia was just left with five scholarship players. They had to recruit in the portal if they wanted any chance at being competitive this season. For Huggins and his staff, this was really the first crack at the portal.
WVU was able to secure commitments from Erik Stevenson, Emmitt Matthews, Tre Mitchell and Joe Toussaint last spring. The team also brought in three Junior College players and two true freshmen.
“We had a bad year last year. I think our attitudes are better,” Huggins reflected in the preseason. “I think we’ve gained by subtraction in some regards.”
With the new-look team, West Virginia had a roller coaster season that ended up taking them back to the NCAA Tournament. But it was a crazy journey to get there.
The Mountaineers started out the season with a blowout win over Pitt in the Backyard Brawl. West Virginia also had quality wins over UAB and Florida while losing close to Purdue and Xavier. WVU headed into Big 12 play with a 10-2 record and everything seemed fine.
Then it appeared as if this season would be another repeat of last year.
West Virginia started out conference play 0-5. To make matters worse, Stevenson lost all confidence after receiving a technical against Oklahoma State that ultimately cost them the game.
“Erik gets incredibly stupid again, basically costs us the game. Can’t happen again. Just cannot happen again,” Huggins said after the game.
Huggins spent a lot of the season trying to light a fire under Stevenson. Eventually, a 31-point performance lifted the fifth-year senior guard for the rest of the season. Stevenson took the keys right back and didn’t hesitate.
During the grueling January stretch, Huggins and long-time assistant Larry Harrison parted ways. Within four days, Huggins hired a familiar face in former player DerMarr Johnson, who played at Cincinnati from 1999-00. The hiring of Johnson seemed to be the turning point of the season as the vibes changed.
West Virginia at this point got many monkeys off their backs. They finally won a conference game versus TCU at home. They finally won a road conference game for the first time in 23 months, defeating Texas Tech in Lubbock, after Seth Wilson and James Okonkwo had breakout performances off the bench. Everything seemed back on track for the Mountaineers.
A quick two-game, three-day road trip in Texas killed everything. A blowout loss to Texas in Austin and another game that got away against Baylor put WVU back under pressure to win some games. Heading back to Morgantown, West Virginia was in a must-win scenario hosting a recently rejuvenated Texas Tech team. WVU ended up dropping their third-straight game and once again it appeared as if the NCAA Tournament was unlikely.
Throughout the season West Virginia was heavily favored by the computer rankings. KenPom and NET were two of the few that gave WVU a lot of credit for their strength of schedule, as well as their win margins. By playing a tough non-conference schedule adding onto the Big 12 play, West Virginia didn’t have to win many games to reach the NCAA Tournament.
On Feb. 19, this team was 15-12 and needed a few more wins to dance in March. With another hard road trip to Kansas and Iowa State, it seemed over. But it wasn’t.
West Virginia took Kansas to the limit at Allen Fieldhouse, as the Mountaineers were just one basket away from securing their first win ever in Lawrence. 21 turnovers and West Virginia still almost won. This loss, if anything, motivated WVU even more heading into Ames.
With just four minutes to go against the Cyclones, West Virginia went on a run and stole the game on the road. Matthews played the five in the final stretch after Mohamed Wague, Okonkwo were out with injuries and Mitchell was tossed earlier in the game. The Iowa State win was the biggest win of the season as it created momentum for West Virginia to give their seniors a perfect sendoff versus Kansas State.
West Virginia ended the regular season 3-1 and put themselves playing for a seed line by the Big 12 Tournament. Stevenson, Matthews and Kedrian Johnson were all playing their best basketball of their collegiate careers at the best time.
Following a two-day stay in Kansas City, WVU returned to the NCAA Tournament, awarded a 9-seed on Selection Sunday.
Johnson gave it his all, scoring a career-high 27 points against first-round matchup Maryland, but his final shot at the buzzer wasn’t enough. WVU fell to the Terrapins, 67-65, to complete their first run at the transfer portal experiment.
“Well, the reality is it took us a while to get them all together. We struggled early. We struggled early. We just didn’t have the right chemistry. But I think, you know, we had a meeting to where fellas, you know, you can’t keep going this way. I mean, the talk is you want to play in the NCAA Tournament. You are not going to be able to play in the NCAA Tournament unless you start winning games. And they did. They won games in the hardest league in America. You know, you can look back, there’s a lot of you couldve’s, shouldve’s. They just didn’t fall our way,” Huggins said.
Just 12 months ago, West Virginia had five scholarship players on campus. The team went through an overhaul with players and lost a couple of main assistants in the process. Huggins and his staff proved that they could get with the times, as their critics said. Now, can they continue to build through the transfer portal and get to the next step?