Prior to this century, the history of West Virginia University men’s basketball was speckled with bright spots but certainly had its fair share of ups and downs.
Following the retirement of longtime head coach Gale Catlett in 2002, the Mountaineers have been blessed with consistent winning first with Catlett’s replacement — John Beilein — and currently under the watch of Bob Huggins. Success is now expected in Morgantown, which is why the last two seasons of WVU basketball have felt so strange.
The 2018-2019 Mountaineers were a deeply flawed operation from the start with the team dropping more than a few veteran players from the roster along the way. By the end of the season they were a young, mostly inexperienced team and showed some promise in a run to the Big 12 tournament semifinals. Still, falling well short of the NCAA tournament is not something many expect to see from a Huggins team.
Last season’s WVU team was expected to be much better, and for stretches it certainly was, but when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City before eventually wiping out all postseason college basketball it left a sense of the unknown that will loom over what could have been for that group. The 2019-2020 Mountaineers were at times among the best defensive teams in the country, and at other times — especially away from the WVU Coliseum — they looked completely lost.
Jordan McCabe did make the progress at point guard as a sophomore that West Virginia desperately needed so Huggins had to get creative with his back court lineups and never seemed to be able to get the right combination of players on the floor together for very long. WVU’s front court received a lot of hype with Derek Culver back for his sophomore season after a breakout freshman year, and Oscar Tshiebwe expected to be among the best first-year players anywhere in the country. At times that duo clicked and when it happened there were not many, if any teams outside of maybe Kansas, that had the personnel to do much about it — and even the Jayhawks had their fair share of trouble with the Mountaineers in the post last season. However it was much more common for either Culver or Tshiebwe to play well while the other did not.
So assuming there is a college basketball season, where does that leave the 2020-2021 Mountaineers?
West Virginia was not hit hard by graduation or attrition, so the bulk of last season’s team should be back with another year of experience under its belt. This team will be similar to last season’s in that regard, but the bar of expectations has been considerably raised. West Virginia was certainly an improved team last season, but those Mountaineers left many with the feeling that the results fell far short of the potential they possessed.
If Culver and Tshiebwe can really learn to play on the floor at the same time, shut down any talk of them being “among” the best front court duos in the country. If Miles McBride can improve on the promise he showed at times as a freshman, he can be among the elite guards in the Big 12. If Emmitt Matthews get past the prolonged slumps that plagued his sophomore season, he can be a matchup nightmare for any coach in the country — ask Chris Beard about what Matthews did to his Texas Tech team in the Big 12 tournament two seasons ago before the Red Raiders went on a run to the national championship game.
If redshirt freshman Jalen Bridges, the much-hyped in-state product from Fairmont Senior (which, if you haven’t noticed, has become a WVU recruiting staple in several sports), is as good as advertised he adds a presence on the perimeter the Mountaineers have been missing for a long time. Jordan McCabe might never be the guy for West Virginia but if he can give you meaningful minutes maybe there is some decent depth among the guards. If WVU can consistently get some shots to fall — last season that was a lot to ask at times — maybe the Mountaineers can start to win some games away from Morgantown in Big 12 play for the first time in what feels like forever.
If, if, if.
There are a lot of valid questions surrounding the next West Virginia men’s basketball team. Huggins and his staff have been together for a long time, and I think they have earned the benefit of the doubt. It’s hard to ignore the results on the court the last two seasons, but if anyone can get the most out these guys it’s Huggins, right?