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Season Preview: West Virginia Looks to Return to the NCAA Tournament Despite Many Questions

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On Nov. 9, when WVU public address announcer Bill Nevin says, “let’s bring on the Mountaineers,” it might take a minute to put new names with faces.

The West Virginia men’s basketball team has had a chaotic offseason, losing four scholarship players and two walk-ons, following a 75-72 loss to Syracuse in the round of 32. The departures are highlighted by Miles McBride to the NBA, Emmitt Matthews (Washington) and Jordan McCabe (UNLV) who transferred and Derek Culver to professional play.

The NCAA Tournament appearance team from the 2020-21 season has been taken apart.

Last season, it took the Mountaineers a few games to find their true identity, especially after big man Oscar Tshiebwe entered the transfer portal on New Year’s Day. Bob Huggins and his coaching staff ended up switching to a four-out, which puts four guards out with one big man.

Enter Jalen Bridges.

Bridges stepped up big for WVU during Big 12 Conference play, going from essentially no playing time to starting the rest of the season. Thanks to Bridges, the Mountaineers were able to figure out their team and what works best.

Following the loss to the Orange in March, the Mountaineers were seemingly back to square one.

The landscape of college basketball was drastically changing with the new transfer portal rules, and the coaching staff had to adapt to it.

They did just that.

Meet The Newcomers

Within the first month of the offseason, the Mountaineers were able to secure transfers Malik Curry (Old Dominion), Dimon Carrigan (Florida International) and Pauly Paulicap (DePaul). All three additions are grad transfer players and will have one season of eligibility.

Curry spent two seasons at Old Dominion, averaging 15.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists last season. Curry’s new team comes with the added pressure of trying to replace the contribution from McBride. Huggins stated that they will miss Culver more than McBride, solely because of what Curry brings to his team this season.

“He’s [Curry] got really good foot speed. He’s started to shoot it a lot better than he shot it when he fist got here. He does have speed,” Huggins said.

Culver left the program in April after weeks of speculation. The two-time All-Big 12 recipient entered the NBA draft but went undrafted following an awkward departure.

“In general there are good agents, and there are bad agents. There’s guys who prey on young people. We’ve had that here,” Huggins said back in June. “We’ve had a guy come in here and prey on young people and the saddest thing to me is, every summer, somebody comes back and says, ‘Huggs, I wish I would’ve listened to you.’”

Carrigan and Paulicap were picked up to fill the void that will be missed by Culver.

Carrigan played two seasons at Florida International, averaging 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. The 6-foot-9 forward finished top 20 in blocks in the NCAA in 2020-21.

West Virginia will be Paulicap’s fourth school in college after stints with Harcum College (PA), Manhattan and DePaul. For the Blue Demons, Paulicap appeared in 19 games, averaging 7.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.

Huggins just wants Carrigan and Paulicap to do one thing, rebound.

“Well, hopefully they can get a rebound or two. We’re going to have enough people,” Huggins said.

The coaching staff completed their recruiting class for 2021, which includes G Seth Wilson, G Kobe Johnson, F Jamel King and F James Okonkwo. These aren’t top 100 players in the country, but it wouldn’t be a WVU coaching staff without them finding the diamonds in the rough. Wilson is another ‘McBride’ type guard, who plays hard defense and can handle the ball. Johnson can shoot the ball really well. King and Okonkwo are skilled forwards who have athletic builds.

King and Okonkwo recently committed during the summer, which brings the total of Mountaineers to 15 players.

“We’ve got a lot of guys. 15 guys is a lot of guys,” Huggins said.

For the once thin team which only had a handful of scholarship players in April, now has a total of 15. This can have its positives and negatives but Huggins doesn’t think anyone on the team will be irritated with limited playing time.

“I just don’t think with our guys and their personalities and the way they get along with each other that we’ll have any issues with bad attitudes or anything like that,” Huggins said. “And then actually if we have a bad attitude then we’ll have 14 [guys].”

So, Who’s Returning To West Virginia This Season?

Senior guards Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil are the best contributors from 2020-21 returning for WVU this season. Sherman averaged 13.4 points on 41 percent shooting from the field. The Missouri City, Texas native shot 35 percent from three and 87 percent from the free-throw line. McNeil averaged 12.2 points in 29 games, on 38 percent shooting from three.

Last season, Sherman came off the bench as the sixth man for most of the games but this year, it appears as he will be alongside McNeil to lead the WVU offense.

“Since we have a lot of new guys, the ball is going to be in my hands, and Sean’s hands, a lot because we know the system, we know the offense, we know how coach wants it to be ran,” Sherman said. “We just know how the game goes, especially in Big 12 play.”

West Virginia returned some defense too.

Seniors Gabe Osabuohien and Kedrian Johnson will both be utilized once again in the rotation, with both potentially finishing games for WVU. Last season, Osabuohien was always on the floor as the final buzzer sounded, while Johnson occasionally would be, depending on McBride’s foul count. When Osabuohien and Johnson are on the floor, the Mountaineers are playing six versus five on defense. Any time the ball is on the floor, expect these two to come out of nowhere and dive for the ball.

Not much to say about Osabuohien. Every championship team has his type of play style. Everyone knows him as the ‘glue guy’ on this roster. If charges drawn were an official stat, Osabuohien would be up on that list. The Canadian native will play a huge role on the defensive side for WVU, and could show more of his offensive game. Osabuohien was the first Mountaineer to quickly announce his return, days after the loss to Syracuse.

“What was on my mind was losing to Syracuse, I’m not going to lie. I didn’t want to go out like that,” Osabuohien said.

Johnson was a big part of the 19-point comeback against Oklahoma State last January, finishing with nine points in 25 minutes. Majority of his minutes against the Cowboys were when the Mountaineers were rallying to comeback and steal the win in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Johnson recorded five assists and three rebounds in the victory.

Last December, forward Isaiah Cottrell tore his Achilles, ending his freshman season abruptly. Now, with Tshiebwe and Culver gone, Cottrell looks to take over the five-spot in the starting lineup. What was supposed to be an 8-to-12 month recovery time, only took seven months for Cottrell, who busted his ass to return to the court for the Mountaineers.

“I did rehab probably five to six days a week, about two hours a day,” Cottrell said. “It was all worth it though.”

Cottrell looked much improved, even before the injury, during the Gold-Blue Debut event. The 6-foot-10 forward played 27 minutes, finishing with 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting, including a made three. Cottrell had two rebounds and two assists as well.

Other returnees are sophomores Taj Thweatt and Seny N’Diaye. Thweatt and N’Diaye are both forwards that have great builds and express their athletic abilities. Both should see more time in the rotation off the bench.

Looking At Rotations and Schedule

Off of predictions, the new starting lineup could end up being Ke. Johnson, McNeil, Sherman, Bridges and Cottrell. Off the bench, Osabuohien, Paulicap and Carrigan can be the spark plugs on defense, while Curry can be the spark plug on offense.

Who could be finishing the games? That’s a whole different story. Osabuohien will not be on the bench on the final possession. Depending on foul trouble, the end of the game lineup could be Sherman, McNeil, Bridges, Osabuohien and Cottrell.

This year’s West Virginia team will be a lot similar to last year’s, a lot of offense and not a lot of defense. The Mountaineers will be capable of scoring 75-plus points per game, but risk allowing around 75 points per game. The players have expressed that it will have to be a team effort on the rebounds this season, since Culver is gone.

Many questions surround this year’s team, as WVU was selected to finish fifth in the Big 12 preseason poll.

West Virginia’s notable non-conference games this season are:

  1. at Arkansas (Jan. 29)

  2. vs. UCONN (Dec. 8)

  3. vs. Pitt (Nov. 12)

  4. Charleston Classic – Elon, Ole Miss, Marquette, St. Bonaventure, Clemson, Boise State, Temple (Nov. 18-21)

  5. at UAB (Dec. 18)

For the most part, WVU’s non-conference schedule is a favorable schedule, with the few Power-5 challenges spread out throughout the weeks. The game at Alabama-Birmingham will be the first true road game for the Mountaineers this season, on Dec. 18. That’s a good amount of time with only home and neutral floor games. Here’s more of my thoughts of the basketball schedule. 

What’s First On Deck For West Virginia?

On Oct. 23, the Mountaineers will travel to Columbus to scrimmage against Dayton in a closed practice.

The Mountaineers won’t have an opened exhibition contest until Oct. 29, when Huggins welcomes his former team, Akron. The exhibition game against Akron will have the proceeds go towards the Norma Mae Huggins Cancer Research Endowment Fund. The game is set to tip-off at 7 p.m.

On Nov. 9, the Mountaineers will welcome Oakland for the season opener at the WVU Coliseum. The game is set to be televised on ESPN+, starting at 7 p.m.

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Ethan Bock is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in journalism at WVU. He currently is an intern with the Final Fourcast podcast. Ethan has covered WVU football and men’s basketball for the last year with Blue Gold Sports — an USA Today credentialed outlet. He is from Cincinnati, OH.

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