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Isaiah Cottrell

Isaiah Cottrell

At first glance, the loss of Isaiah Cottrell didn’t appear to be a major blow to the West Virginia University men’s basketball team.

But look again.

The fact that WVU’s 6-foot-10 true freshman forward was averaging only 1.6 points and 1.4 rebounds in only 5.6 minutes per game is extremely misleading.

It wasn’t about what Cottrell had done in the Mountaineers’ last 10 games. It’s what he was going to do in WVU’s next 10 contests.

That’s because even before the former Huntington Prep star tore his left Achilles tendon early in the second half of the Mountaineers’ 73-51 victory over Northeastern on Tuesday, WVU coach Bob Huggins already had made his mind up to start playing Cottrell more.

He even said so the day before the Northeastern game.

“We need Isaiah to step up and, quite frankly, we haven’t given him the opportunity,” said Huggins during a Zoom meeting. “He’s a 6-10 who can step out and make shots. He does it consistently in practice.

“We’ve got to get him a little more physical. He’s not used to the physicality of college basketball coming right out of [prep school]. He can make shots, he can pass the ball, he’s our most skilled ‘big.’ We’ve got to get him on the floor a lot more.”

Those words ring ominously now, particularly in light of 6-9, 260-pound sophomore Oscar Tshiebwe’s decision on Friday to step away from the Mountaineers’ program for personal reasons.

Suddenly, in a span of only four days, WVU loses two of its top three big men, leaving 6-10 Derek Culver to hold the fort.

But as for Huggins’ plan to play Cottrell more, it was absolutely the right move. Just not at the right time.

“Everyone associated with Mountaineer basketball is saddened by the news that we received on Isaiah,” said Huggins. “Isaiah is a great teammate, a wonderful kid and a hard worker who will do everything asked of him to get back to 100 percent and back on the court.”

Cottrell was thisclose to being a real contributor. That probably would have been the case when WVU plays Oklahoma at 4 p.m. Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma.

Yet, the question lingers: Why didn’t Huggins give Cottrell more playing time earlier? The answer is it simply wasn’t that easy with a lineup that already included Culver and Tshiebwe.

“It’s all a situation thing,” explained Huggins recently. “I’d say we’ve got to play him because we’ve got to continue to help boost his confidence because he’s very, very skilled. There’s absolutely no question he’s the most skilled of our bigs.

“That being said, it’s hard to take a guy who is averaging a double-double and sit him down, which Derek is. Derek has been ... I don’t know, I haven’t seen everybody, but I’ve got to think he’s been one of the better players in our league, if not the best player in our league.”

Yet, even then, Huggins knew what he needed to do.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” he said. “And the right thing is to get Isaiah playing time and continue to help him with his confidence and his knowledge of what is supposed to go on. And as I think, as that continues to progress, certainly, he’s going to become more and more of a factor.”

Huggins had it figured out after nine games. He was thinking and moving in the right direction.

But that 10th game really got in the way.

WVU is going to miss Cottrell this season.