What to watch for in WVU men’s basketball’s scrimmage with Akron

Gold and Blue Nation

West Virginia men’s basketball has its first (open door) test on Friday night in an exhibition against Akron — tip-off is set for 7 p.m. ET on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.

The start of 2021-22 mirrors the early stages of Bob Huggins’s storied career, as the campaign unofficially opens against the Zips — the program that gave him his first head coaching job in 1984. The coach had plenty of fond memories of his first gig, which acted as a launching pad for his historic run at Cincinnati.

Four head coaches later, John Groce now heads the Zips, and has since 2017. Huggins looks forward to putting his team against Akron as he looks to solidify what his team will look like for the season opener on Nov. 9.

“Akron is going to be really good for us, and I think it’s really good that it is an exhibition, probably for both teams, because they lost their point guard, and they’re going to have to break in a new point guard. We obviously lost our point guard, so I think it’s going to be good for Akron, I think it’s going to be good for us,” Huggins said. “They’re also a team that’s got really good size on the front line, so playing against a team with good size on the front line is more what we’re going to see…obviously when we get into Big 12 play.”

Here’s what to keep an eye out for as the Mountaineers debut against the Zips:

Taz and McNeil lead a group of new guards

Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil headline this year’s returners, with Sherman earning the only preseason All-Big 12 nod out of the Mountaineers. Last season, the duo combined to average 25.6 points per game as the WVU offense underwent a major mid-season facelift, shifting focus to the three-ball.

In the same vein, the departure of Deuce McBride looks like a major hit to the team on the surface — he led the team in scoring, and was good enough as a sophomore to earn a roster spot on the New York Knicks. Huggins wasted no time in finding a replacement for that production this year, adding transfer Malik Curry from Old Dominion, and the highly-touted freshman duo of Kobe Johnson and Seth Wilson of Ohio.

Curry looks to act as a counterweight to the Sherman-McNeil dual deep-shooting threat. At Old Dominion, the 6-1 guard started all 20 games and led the Monarchs in scoring, steals and assists — mostly utilizing his dribble drive to rack up his point totals. In fact, he says WVU’s guard-heavy offense is perfect for his game, as the outside shooting helps open the floor for him to get to the rim.

“I like to drive, get in the basket, get guys open, and I can create for myself,” Curry said. “I want to start off by making my teammates better, because I know I’m gonna get mine at the end of the day.”

Curry could play extended minutes for WVU as a fifth-year senior — in the Gold-Blue Debut, he played 22 minutes (third on the Gold squad) and added four points on 40 percent from the field, tacking on five rebounds and seven assists.

Kedrian Johnson is also expected to get a lot of minutes as he returns for his second season with WVU. Johnson started at guard for Blue, adding three points and four assists in 25 minutes. Huggins did note, however, that he has spent much of the preseason fighting off an injury to his non-dominant hand.

Isaiah Cottrell is back, and Gabe reportedly has a jumper

The Mountaineers took a major hit to their lineup early in 2020-21 when Isaiah Cottrell suffered a season-ending injury to his ankle. His road to recovery was in question even as late as the summer — but he is fully back with the Mountaineers, and ready to show off some of his biggest improvements.

If the Gold-Blue Debut is any indication, Huggins is ready to use Cottrell extensively in the rotation this season. The 6-10 sophomore forward led the victorious Gold team with 27 minutes, adding 16 points and a pair of rebounds — even making a three-pointer in the contest.

Cottrell isn’t the only big man hoping to flash a jumper this year, however. Gabe Osabuohien was the first Mountaineer to announce his return to the program for his extra year of eligibility — and he spent the offseason working on every aspect of his game. This includes his jump shot, which is welcome news for fans after he made just 14 baskets in 2020-21.

“I can’t believe how much better he’s gotten,” Bob Huggins said ahead of the team’s Gold-Blue Debut scrimmage. “I didn’t work with him at all. I didn’t spend any time with him on his shooting. That was all him. He was in here every day, pretty much all day.” 

In the Gold-Blue Debut, Osabuohien played 20 minutes, adding 10 points for Blue while shooting 4-of-7 from the field and 2-of-3 from the line.

Huggins on the fence about defense

If there’s one thing that Bob Huggins teams are known for, it’s defense. Last season, that reputation took a hit as the team underwent its makeover, finishing eighth in the Big 12 in scoring defense.

Huggins didn’t seem too confident that trend would change in 2021-22, pointedly saying the Mountaineers are “not very good” defensively. He hopes that playing against the experienced Zips will help change that.

Of course, Huggins has a high standard for defense given his resume and reputation.

“There’s a difference between guarding, and guarding the way we guard,” Huggins said. “We haven’t figured out the way we guard yet.”

Part of that trend, he says, is due to the difficulty of the Big 12 — but still, he is not at all satisfied with the progress of his team on defense, or really, anywhere on the court.

Huggins did look to the transfer portal to bolster his team’s frontcourt defense this past offseason. Pauly Paulicap, an addition from DePaul, joined the team this summer as a fifth-year senior after finishing last season as one of the Big East’s top shot-blockers. FIU transfer Dimon Carrigan also joined the squad after finishing second in C-USA in shot blocking.

Rim protection, however, is not where WVU’s problem lies, according to Huggins.

“To be a good defensive team, you can’t give straight line drives,” he said. “Everybody that touches the ball gets a straight line drive against us.”

Where to watch

Tip-off between the Mountaineers and the Zips is set for 7 p.m. ET on Big 12 Now on ESPN+. Gold and Blue Nation will have highlights of the contest right here on GoldandBlueNation.com, as well in Mountaineer Minutes on Nexstar newscasts across the state of West Virginia.

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