The 2018-2019 Mountaineer men’s basketball season ended in the most poetic way humanly possible — getting ran out of the gym by a far less talented directional Carolina team in a tournament we paid to host.
The 2019-2020 campaign has gotten off to a much better start as the Mountaineers have reeled off seven straight wins. It’s the best start to a season since 2016 when the Mountaineers won their first seven before losing to Virginia in the Bronx.
The start is all the more remarkable when you consider how disastrous last season was for the program. Bob Huggins has only had three losing seasons in his entire coaching career, and two have them have come at WVU — 2012/13 and last season. Unlike 2012-2013, however, few expected the team to struggle as much as they did, for basically, the entire season. Sure WVU was replacing generational talent Jevon Carter and Dax Miles, the core at the heart of “Press Virginia,” but on paper, WVU still had a lot to be hopeful about coming into last season. Sagabe Konante had a breakout sophomore year and had opted to return for his junior year, the incoming class included two four-star recruits in Derek Culver and Jordan McCabe, as well highly touted JUCO transfers Andrew Gordon and Jermaine Haley. Additionally, WVU had the extremely talented Esa Ahmad returning for his senior season, along side James Bolden and Lamont West.
Then things fell apart. Quickly. WVU dropped their opener in overtime to a talented Buffalo squad that would go on to win 32 games en route to a second round loss to eventual national runner up Texas Tech. The Mountaineer’s never recovered from it’s second half-collapse. Though there were occasional bright spots (a close loss to Texas Tech, a win over Kansas in Morgantown), the season never got back on track, and as mentioned earlier, ended in a embarrassing 109-91 home loss that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate.
By the end, WVU had shed basically every “veteran” slated to step up: Ahmad and backup guard Wesley Harris were dismissed midway through the season; Konante’s season was a drama-filled affair that I don’t think we need to discuss any further; Bolden struggled with injuries before grad transferring to Alabama; and West rounded out the major departures landing at Missouri State.
With so much roster turnover, few in the national media predicted a fast-turnaround. With the season underway though, this Mountaineer squad looks transformed.
Last season, the team struggled on defense, particularly “on-ball,” finishing a paltry 135th in KenPom’s adjusted defense rankings (the lowest for a WVU team since 2014). There was simply a lack of toughness, both mentally and physically — the hallmark of any Bob Huggins team. Through seven games, WVU is currently 44th and no one can accuse them of being “soft” on defense. Just ask Wichita State. The Shockers were overwhelmed by WVU’s pressure in the second half and shot just 30-percent for the game, a season low.
“They were bigger and they were badder,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said after the game. No one would have said that last season.
Offensively, the squad has improved too. I am not sure you could actually describe anything WVU did last year as “running offense.” Woefully inconsistent at the point, and virtually unable to take anyone off the dribble, WVU finished 71st in KenPom’s adjusted offensive rankings, its worst showing since 2013. At times, last season WVU simply looked lost. There was never any rhythm or flow. This year? They are back on track, ranking a respectable 45th in KenPom and have found ways to score out of the high-low.
Again, it’s early and while WVU has played a solid schedule, outside of Wichita State and maybe UNI, the Mountaineers have not faced a bevy of tournament teams. They have also struggled to put away teams at times (Akron, Northern Colorado, and Rhode Island) and required a huge comeback against UNI.
Still, as we look back on the season through the first month of play there have been a ton of positives. Five-star Oscar Tshiebwe has been as good as advertised, particularly in big games; and he’s averaging just under a double-double. Haley continues to improve and provide WVU with someone who can take opponents off the dribble. Likewise, Derek Culver is becoming more and more comfortable in his new role. Emmitt Matthews Jr. has also shone in the spotlight and has the potential to be special.
December holds two big opportunities for the Mountaineers to show how far they’ve come: a trip this Saturday to Madison Square Garden to face former Big East foe St. John’s in the Big East/Big 12 Battle and December 29 tilt with #10 Ohio State in Cleveland. Outside of that, WVU should easily win their remaining three contests over middling mid-majors Austin Peay, Nicholls State, and Youngstown State.
Big XII Power Rankings Through November
- Oklahoma State Cowboys, 7-0 Mike Boynton’s squad has gotten out to a strong start and has one of the best non-conference wins of any team in the Big XII so far, with a 86-72 rout of Syracuse in the Bronx, not to mention absolutely demolishing Ole Miss a night later.
- Baylor Bears, 5-1 The Bears were a trendy preseason pick to show-out. An early loss to an underrated Washington team may have tempered that, but the Bears bounced back with a big win over Villanova to open the Big East/Big XII Battle.
- West Virginia Mountaineers, 7-0
- Oklahoma Sooners, 6-1 Another team looking to bounce back after a few lack-luster seasons, the Sooners already have three wins versus Power 5 opponents. The 73-54 loss to Stanford stings though.
- Kansas Jayhawks, 6-1 It feels weird to rank such a talented team this low, but the Jayhawks haven’t looked as sharp as I would have expected. The opening loss to Duke is understandable, thought that too is a bit diminished given that Duke looks far more vulnerable than expected. Still, no reason to believe they won’t rise to the top again once conference play starts.
- Texas Longhorns, 6-1 Entering a make or break year for Shaka Smart, Texas has struggled to find offensive output and only narrowly escaped a scare from lowly McNeese State over the holiday weekend. The Georgetown loss might end up looking better by the end of the year, but outside of a 4-point win over Purdue, there isn’t much here to be encouraged about if you’re a Longhorns fan.
- TCU Horned Frogs, 5-1 If any team would benefit from the conference adding some chafe, it’s TCU and Jamie Dixon, but that’s another column entirely. The Frogs got a solid win over an often tricky Air Force team, but will almost certainly wish they hadn’t missed an opportunity for a win over a Power 5 team in Clemson
- Iowa State Cyclones, 4-3 If you’re looking for a team that is absolutely going to sneak up on someone in January, it’s the Clones. They’re 4-3, but all three losses have came to extremely good teams in competitive games. They’ll get an opportunity to get a measure of revenge against Seton Hall this weekend when the Pirates visit the Hilton Coliseum.
- Texas Tech Red Raiders, 5-2 There’s no need to panic yet for Chris Beard and company, but two straight losses to Iowa and Creighton, along with some close calls early against low-majors like Eastern Illinois aren’t exactly encouraging.
- Kansas State Wildcats, 4-2 The Bruce Weber Experience is definitely losing to a crappy Bradley team after blowing a lead to an underwhelming team from the city north of Morgantown. Best win so far is a four point road win in Las Vegas.
November WVU Awards
- Most Valuable Player — Oscar Tshiebwe Though he’s occasionally disappeared in games, he has been everything you could want in a big man, and particularly in big games. And alongside honorable mention Derek Culver, has made WVU a terror on the glass.
- Most Improved Player — Emmitt Matthews, Jr Tall, lanky and has the ability to shoot and drive? Sign me up. Matthews is quickly evolving into one of WVU’s best components, filling the role many had hoped the now departed Lamont West would fill. He’s had some huge shots at pivotal moments.
- Biggest Disappointment — Jordan McCabe’s Facial Hair Seriously I hate it.
- Biggest Surprise — The New Court The new colors and design look fantastic on television. Serious kudos to all the folks at the Athletic Department who made it happen.