When I found a place that carried ESPN+ (I’m still holding out!) and the WVU basketball game, I found myself squinting like, I’m sure, many of you.
OK, I recognized Kedrian Johnson, Kobe Johnson and Seth Wilson. Oh, and hey, Emmitt Matthews is back!
But I’m learning the other seven that played – with transfer Jose Perez on deck for December.
No Taz Sherman. No Sean McNeil. No Malik Curry, Jalen Bridges, Isaiah Cottrell or Pauly Paulicap. And, for goodness sake, no Gabe Osabuohien. (Sad emoji.)
But that team finished 16-17. Which is not good enough, nor befitting Hall of Fame coach Bob Huggins. So, through attrition, the portal and nudging out the door, WVU lost those players and, through recruiting and the portal, rebuilt the current team.
Understand folks that WVU was No. 168 last season in team defense (69.0), No. 243 in team offense (68.5), No. 307 in field goal percentage (41.3), No. 316 in rebound margin (minus 3.8) and No. 350 of 350 in joy exhibited. The mix just didn’t work.
So we turned our lonely eyes to Mount St. Mary’s at WVU on Monday to see. Mountaineer fans are crawling through a proverbial desert in search of winning to quench a thirst.
They received a 76-58 WVU victory, but most walked away going “meh.” Even Huggs.
“I don’t think we played very well,” he said. “No disrespect to (Mount St. Mary’s)… We don’t make rotations. We don’t guard the ball as well as we need to guard the ball. We didn’t rebound the way we’re capable of rebounding. We turned it over 18 times, which has to stop.”
Turnover margin was one stat WVU was decent at last season at plus-2.9, No. 34 nationally.
So with the waters still muddy I made some calls to those within the program. I asked for some big-picture expectations. I asked for big-picture reasons for optimism.
Here’s the combined feedback:
- There’s depth among guards as well as inside players. Depth at guard has always been a key for West Virginia so the Mountaineers can play faster. At guard, the coaches really like Kedrian Johnson and Iowa transfer Joe Toussaint to go along with Erik Stevenson and Kobe Johnson to penetrate the lane. There’s the ability to get numbers.
- The big men can score around the basket. Of note from Monday’s game was 6-10 Mohamed Wague’s 4-of-5 shooting line for nine points in 20 minutes of action. Jimmy Bell, also at 6-10, is a starter. The name “Sags” was mentioned in regard to James Okonkwo after Monday’s game. Huggs called him “bouncy” and “quick off his feet.”
- The athleticism is better. Even Huggins mentioned it on Monday, but with a huge caveat. “I think we’re athletic, but we’re not skilled,” he said.
- Although the team isn’t full of great shooters, those on the team play hard, give good effort and the chemistry is great. One said he very much looks forward to going to practice these days. That wasn’t always the case last season.
- Senior Tre Mitchell should be a really good scorer. Remember, one said, Mitchell was out four weeks and had a screw in his fibula on Monday, but scored 13 points in 14 minutes of action. The Mountaineers should be able to score from the wing with Matthews and Mitchell.
- Players like Kobe Johnson and Seth Wilson have accepted their roles on the team and fit in well. “They’re good kids,” one said.
- The schedule is brutal, but no one is intimidated. The players have accepted the challenge and are prepared to make each game a “dog fight.” That means tough defense, shot blocking, rim protecting, using the wings’ length and getting better guard play on the ball.
- And, of course, WVU’s players are prepared to play man-to-man defense. Aggressive man-to-man defense. The belief is the Mountaineers will be able to take opponents out of what they want to do. Success will be predicated on how well they defend ball screens for guards and stopping the ball from getting in the middle. If they can consistently, effectively defend ball screens, they can be good.
- As for incoming Perez? Well, he’s a versatile player who can man multiple positions. He can put up scoring numbers, dish assists and rebound. The hope is he blends nicely into what is currently a great chemistry situation.
It should be an interesting season. It may take a few games before the Mountaineers get in synch, hit their groove, however you want to put it.
But WVU is recalibrated. And I’m here for it.
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Mitch Vingle covered sports in West Virginia for 38 years. Follow Mitch on Twitter at @MitchVingle and be sure to check out the rest of Wheelhouse Creative’s website for your marketing and advertising needs. If interested, call us at 304-905-6005.