Now that nearly all of their preseason obligations are over, it’s officially time to look forward to West Virginia men’s basketball’s 2019-2020 season.
The Mountaineers had a rough go about it last season — between locker room issues, injuries and a general lack of high-level play, WVU slid to a 15-21 record on the season and a second round exit from the College Basketball Invitational. By the offseason, eight players left the program for various reasons, creating holes for Bob Huggins to fill heading into the following year.
Last season wasn’t all negative for West Virginia, though. With the departure of some starters during the season, younger players got their chance to step up — and they did. Guys like Emmitt Matthews Jr., Jordan McCabe and Derek Culver all got extended minutes down the stretch — eventually leading the team to the Big 12 Championship game.
That young core is back this season, and coming along with them is the highest-touted recruiting class for West Virginia in years.
West Virginia was picked to finished fifth in the Big 12, a notion that Huggins brushes off. Still, that mark is the lowest since the Mountaineers were voted seventh in the conference in 2015 (they would finish the regular season as the second seed in the Big 12 Tournament and lose to Kansas in the finals).
After tipping the year off on Nov. 8 against Akron, the Mountaineers square off in another edition of the Backyard Brawl at Pitt. They will also compete in the Cancun Challenge, which includes a pair of games in Morgantown against Northern Colorado and Boston University before heading to Mexico to play Northern Iowa and either South Carolina or Wichita State.
Other notable matchups include a BIG EAST callback at Madison Square Garden against St. John’s and a Big 12/Big 10 clash in Cleveland against Ohio State before tipping Big 12 play off at Allen Fieldhouse.
A different breed of newcomers
The 2019 recruiting class was one of Bob Huggins’s most successful not only since his time at West Virginia, but in his coaching career. Not only did he bring in one of the country’s top big men in Oscar Tshiebwe (we’ll get to him in a moment), but he also added a pair of versatile freshmen in Miles “Deuce” McBride and Jalen Bridges. On top of that, he landed a pair of offensive-minded junior college guards in Taz Sherman and Sean McNeill to help contribute to the scoring load.
Mountaineer fans got their first look at Sherman in his breakout Gold-Blue Debut debut performance, but he’s been showing off his scoring ability since before coming to Morgantown. During his time at Collin College in Texas, he averaged 25.9 points per game — the fourth-highest in NJCAA Division I basketball.
That was topped by fellow newcomer McNeil down in NJCAA Division II, who actually led the country scoring with 29.7 points per game en route to First Team All-America honors.
Question marks still loom about Gabe Osabuohien, a transfer forward from Arkansas. The junior from Toronto, Ontario camed to West Virginia in August but it is still unknown whether or not he will be able to play, as he is waiting to see if his waiver gets cleared by the NCAA. A 6-foot 7-inch forward, Osobuohien provided a spark on defense and on the boards in 54 games for the Razorbacks.
McBride — or “Deuce” as he’s called — is described by Huggins as “probably our most versatile guy.” A 6-2 guard out of Cincinnati, McBride can score from all over the court, and he’s also shown a prowess to make plays on the defensive end.
Lastly, Huggins made a late addition in Fairmont native Jalen Bridges, a 6-7 forward and the top West Virginian in the 2019 class. Bridges will redshirt and won’t likely make his debut this season (barring a similar situation to that of Derek Culver last season).
Big frontcourt complemented by a deep, dynamic backcourt
Bob Huggins’s teams are generally known for the play of their big men, and as such, much of the attention this year is on the team’s frontcourt. Derek Culver will make his return this season after a breakout freshman campaign in which he earned All-Big 12 Second Team and All-Big 12 Freshman Team honors while averaging a double-double in the regular season.
He pairs up with Tshiebwe, one of the top recruits in the country and the first McDonald’s All-American to come to West Virginia since Mark Cline in 1983. “Big O” brings speed and quickness to the paint — a skill he flashed in the Gold-Blue Debut with a breakaway slam. Huggins says Tshiebwe is a raw talent who has a lot to learn — but there is no denying the freshman has talent.
The Mountaineers will likely need to put out some of the most versatile guard play they have in years, and they have the personnel to do it. Jordan McCabe and Chase Harler will likely get the start at guard, along with Emmitt Matthews, Jr., Tshiebwe and Culver in the 3, 4 and 5 spots.
Matthews has been talked up as the most improved player on the squad. He was also the freshman who likely shined brightest down the stretch last year, especially after seeing his playing time increase dramatically due to the thinned roster in the second half. Huggins says he’s gotten bigger and faster, and it’s clear that he’s become a vocal leader for the Mountaineers.
Huggins will have a plethora of different toys to play with coming off the bench. It starts with Jermaine Haley, a senior guard standing 6 feet and 7 inches. Along with Deuce, Huggins calls Haley another one of the Mountaineers’ most dynamic players, and can create matchup nightmares for opponents who don’t have size in their backcourt. Sherman and McNeil — two of the best scorers on the squad — will be able to provide a scoring spark when called upon.