Assuming no more changes are made to the schedule — and at this point anything seems possible in that regard — the West Virginia University men’s basketball team will open its 2020-2021 campaign on Wednesday against South Dakota State at the Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The preseason No. 15 Mountaineers were originally slated to play against Texas A&M to open the Crossover Classic, but the Aggies dropped out and were replaced by Northern Iowa. Later, WVU was flipped to the other side of the bracket and paired against the home-state Jackrabbits — presumably to allow for a possible championship game meeting between the tournament’s marquee participants in the Mountaineers and Memphis. WVU and South Dakota State are scheduled to tip at 7 p.m. with ESPN2 handling the broadcast.
All of those changes in a short amount of time meant veteran West Virginia coach Bob Huggins and his staff had a narrow window to tailor a plan for taking on South Dakota State. Huggins said that despite the short turnaround, he thinks its not all that different from a postseason tournament situation and that the Mountaineers will be ready when the ball is tipped Wednesday evening.
“Really, it’s not a lot different between a conference tournament situation or last year in Cancun when things changed,” Huggins said during a Tuesday video conference from the Sanford Pentagon in South Dakota. “I think we will be fine no matter who [the opposition] is. There is not a lot we haven’t already thrown at them or shown them in how we are going to defend.”
Do not, however, assume that since South Dakota State does not have the brand appeal of a Texas A&M that it is just another opponent. The Jackrabbits can play and much is expected of them this season. SDSU was picked to win the Summit League, taking 33 of 36 first-place votes in the preseason poll and features three preseason all-conference performers. Leading the way is 6-foot-7 forward Doug Wilson, the reigning Summit League Player of the Year and the preseason pick to take that honor again this season after averaging 18.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while connecting on nearly 63 percent of his shots a year ago.
“[Wilson] is a left-shoulder guy like most right-handers are,” Huggins said. “He has a quick release and his understanding of how to play is very good. They put him in a position where he can make plays, and because they shoot it so well and spread it so much, he is iso’d around the rim a lot.”
Sophomore guard Noah Freidel was the Summit League Freshman of the Year last season and a preseason first-team pick this season, while forward Matt Dentlinger was a preseason second-team All-Summit League pick.
“They’re very well-coached,” Huggins said. “I think they do a great job with spacing and running the offense. They’ve got multiple guys who can make shots. I think they’re really a very difficult team to guard in that they space the floor so well and have got so many guys who, if you leave them open, are going to make shots. They pass the ball well. Defensively, they do a great job making you score the ball over them.”
The Mountaineers, of course, have high expectations of their own going into this season. West Virginia brings back all of its key players from a season ago and is among the favorites in what is expected to be a stacked Big 12. There are whispers in some corners of the Mountain State that this could be Huggins’ best team since the one that lost to eventual national champion Duke in the 2010 Final Four, but only time will tell and that journey begins Wednesday in South Dakota.
Multiple positive COVID tests sent Wichita State home from the Crossover Classic before it could play a game, but there are no such problems for the Mountaineers this week in South Dakota.
Huggins said the entire team is in the tournament bubble and will be available for play this week.
“It has been great here,” Huggins said. “It’s exactly what we were told it’s going to be. We’re in a bubble. It’s just our guys. Our guys were tested, and as expected, they’ve done a great job taking care of themselves. The facilities here are unbelievable. The people here are great. It’s been, to this point, a really good experience. The only thing that would screw it up is if we didn’t win games like we’re supposed to.”