“A chance to do some special things”: 2020-21 WVU men’s hoops preview

Gold and Blue Nation

West Virginia is slated to tip off its 111th men’s basketball season on Nov. 25 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota against Northern Iowa, armed with one of the most talented rosters it has had in years.

The 2019-20 season was a massive step up for the Mountaineers over the year previous. After being selected to finish fifth in the Big 12 Conference, WVU fought through an up-and-down conference slate to finish third. They took home 21 victories on the season (a six-game improvement) and were likely candidates for a good seed in the NCAA Tournament.

It all came to a sudden stop in March. All geared up for the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, the Mountaineers ended up getting on a plane and returning home as the COVID-19 pandemic began making its way to and through the United States.

This season is starting in a nearly parallel way — with a lot of promise and hope, but clouded by uncertainty from the pandemic. The Mountaineers were selected third in the conference this season behind just Kansas and Baylor, and will tip off ranked No. 15 in the AP poll. But as the season draws nearer, their schedule has gotten shifted around as teams face issues related to COVID-19.

There’s a silver lining to it all, though: due to the NCAA’s recent ruling on eligibility relief, Bob Huggins has the unique chance to field the exact same roster next season. The future is not on the Mountaineer’s minds at all, though — they’re all-in for the 2020-21 season.

“I think our guys are of the mindset that we have the chance to do some special things and they want to be part of it,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins.

Quick Hits

  • 2019-20 record: 21-10 (9-9 Big 12)
  • 2019-20 Big 12 standing: 6th
  • Highest AP ranking: No. 12
  • Departures: Jermaine Haley, Chase Harler, Logan Routt
  • Additions: Jalen Bridges (r-Fr.), Isaiah Cottrell (Fr.), Seny Ndiaye (Fr.), Taj Thweatt (Fr.), Kedrian Johnson (Jr./JUCO)

The Frontcourt Spotlight

The imposing duo of Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver has acted as a sort of lightning rod for attention. Week after week, preseason honors from the college basketball world trickle into Morgantown as they look to build on their breakout first season on the floor with one another.

The sophomore Tshiebwe is leading the way on this front. After leading the Mountaineers in scoring and rebounding as a freshman, he has landed on watch list after watch list, as well as a spot on the preseason All-Big 12 First Team. He hasn’t let that get to his head, though — instead, he says it just feeds his motivation.

An intimidating defensive presence, Tshiebwe spent the offseason working on his offensive game, specifically his jump shot, with the hope of opening the floor up.

“That’s one thing last year…I struggled with,” he said. “I had those [15-17 foot jump shots] but I hesitated a lot to take those shots. So this year, I just focused and worked harder to have those 15, 17-footers. It’s going to help us a lot because most of the time, [opponents] would just say, ‘leave him right there, he’s not going to shoot that.'”

Culver, a member of the Abdul-Jabbar Award watch list, took a similar approach. This season, he hopes to stretch his offensive game out.

“I’m accustomed to playing on the block, but I’m talking about like playing on the wing, catching the ball, one dribble, two dribbles to the rack and be able to attack and dish the ball to my teammates,” he said. “Just being able to play outside my comfort zone which is on the block and seven feet away from the basket.”

Building Bridges

Jalen Bridges is one of the Mountaineers’ most highly-anticipated new weapons for the upcoming season.

The Fairmont Senior alumnus was the top-ranked recruit in the Mountain State in 2019 with a four-star rating from Rivals and 247Sports, but Huggins opted to give him a redshirt in his first season in Morgantown. Bridges used that time to improve and get acclimated to the college game. When he came in, he says he was just playing to survive — but as time went on, he realized he could hang with his teammates on the court.

“I know what’s going on. I got stronger, and I feel like I know how to play at this level now,” he said. “Right now, I’m about a solid 220 [pounds]. Last year, I was 220 and it was a lot of water weight, but I’m solid now. I’ve gotten way better handling the ball, like being able to scan the floor, make plays for myself and my teammates. Obviously, I can shoot still, so I’m looking forward to getting out there and playing against other guys because we go to war every day in practice.”

Bridges could be a valuable addition to the wing alongside junior Emmitt Matthews Jr., who struggled at times in his sophomore season. Regardless of his statistical production, however, the Spokane, Washington native has emerged as a massive vocal leader for West Virginia.

The McDouble Backcourt

Jordan McCabe and Miles “Deuce” McBride are the headliners and the most likely starters for the Mountaineers at guard. A two-year starter, McCabe saw his minutes fluctuate along with his offensive production. He made 31.1 percent of his shots last season and scored double-digits in just two games.

To combat that, he went right back to basics, spending the offseason working on his shooting form at the most basic level — while also focusing on his assist-to-turnover ratio as well.

McBride, on the other hand, didn’t have much of an issue finding his offensive rhythm. He was third on the team with 9.5 points per game and showed flashes with two 20-plus point games as a freshman. The Cincinnati native says he spent much of the offseason working on his ball skills, specifically coming off of ball screens.

“I’m happy with our point guards, I mean, you take Jordan, you take Deuce, and you take Ke’ [Kedrian Johnson]…I think he’s probably the best of the three in transition,” Huggins said.

Johnson, a new addition this season from junior college, is one of a few Mountaineers that will provide some much-needed backcourt depth for the Mountaineers. He, along with returners Sean McNeil and Taz Sherman (who, interestingly enough, faced Johnson while also at JUCO) will look to provide some extra points off the bench with their shooting abilities.

Be sure to get Gold and Blue Nation’s full preview of the 2020-21 men’s basketball season on the Mountaineer GameDay Preseason Special, which airs this weekend on AT&T SportsNet and on Nexstar stations across West Virginia. Check your local listings for details on airtimes.

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