MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A Black Friday battle is coming up Friday at the WVU Coliseum.
After placing third at the Shriners Children’s Charleston Classic, West Virginia (4-1) will host Eastern Kentucky (5-1) in its third nonconference home game of the season. The Mountaineers are 2-1 all-time against EKU, winning the two most recent meetings in 2012 and 2015.
Here are four storylines to keep an eye on during the game:
Progress on the glass?
When it comes to rebounding the ball this season, the Mountaineers are about as good as advertised.
They’re not very good, which is exactly what head coach Bob Huggins predicted.
WVU has been outrebounded in three of its five contests this season, though it did finish with a positive rebounding margin in wins against Elon (+6) and Clemson (+4) in Charleston.
So maybe that’s a sign of progress?
“I would say we’re not very good. I think before I said we’re horrible,” Huggins said Tuesday. “We’ve gone from horrible to not very good. We’re gonna keep working on it.”
Huggins added that the Mountaineers continue to actively focus on rebounding, beginning each practice with rebounding drills. He wants to see continued progress in this category.
“It’s hard for them to rebound if you’ve got your back and your behind on them,” Huggins said. “We’ve got to continue to work on proper block outs, and we need to be able to [block out], instead of stand and watch when the ball is shot to be able to take it opposite, quite frankly.”
Can the Mountaineers pressure the ball?
WVU has mixed it up on defense over the past few games, notably using a full court press against Elon. Finding a defense that works — and the personnel that makes that defense most effective — is also a work in progress.
“It takes time,” Huggins said. “We’ve got guys coming from various different places with way different philosophies than what we have here.”
But, he continues to preach one specific thing to his team.
“The biggest thing in trying to create a really good defense is ball pressure,” Huggins said. “Ball pressure takes so many things out of the offense’s hands. Then, you combine that with being able to deny one pass away, then you get to make sure you’re in help position, and then being able to recover from help position to on the ball defense.”
Forward Gabe Osabuohien is getting the point. He leads the squad in deflections with 40, while guard Kedrian Johnson is second on the team with 35.
How much more can Sean McNeil contribute?
The sharpshooting guard caught fire in the second half against Clemson.
McNeil scored all of his team-leading 15 points in his final 15:35 of court time in the game, helping the Mountaineers claim a 66-59 victory in come-from-behind fashion. He was 5-8 from the field, including 1-3 from 3-point range, and also added two assists.
McNeil, who is typically a catch-and-shoot guard, got creative in his scoring, which is something Huggins wants to see him continue to do.
“He’s a guy that wants to continue to play when he gets done here, and he’s got to be more than just a catch-and-shoot guy,” Huggins said. “He’s got to be able to score off the bounce, he’s got to be able to use screens — and using screens whether it’s a curl, whether it’s a fade, whether it’s a slip. He’s got to be able to score multiple ways to be somebody who is really hard to guard.”
McNeil’s 13.0 points per game rank second on the roster, trailing fellow guard Taz Sherman (19.0 ppg).
Can WVU protect its home floor?
This is a key not just for this game, but throughout nonconference play — and really, throughout the season.
West Virginia will go through the wringer this season against a stacked Big 12 schedule, and even has some tough nonconference opponents like Connecticut coming up on the calendar.
In order to become an NCAA Tournament team, the Mountaineers will need to win at home, and they can’t afford more losses in nonconference play.
“The teams that end up getting to the tournament are people that win in the nonconference, because we’re gonna beat each other up in the league,” Huggins said.
Six of West Virginia’s remaining seven nonconference games, including the next five, will be played at the Coliseum. Big 12 play begins Jan. 1 at Texas.
WVU hosts Eastern Kentucky Friday at 7 p.m. won Big 12 Now on ESPN+. More details on the game can be found here.