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West Virginia Oklahoma St Basketball (copy)

West Virginia sophomore forward Derek Culver, seen here during a January game, will be a big part of WVU’s 2020-21 season.

Let’s all be honest here. What everyone saw last season from the West Virginia University men’s basketball team was not what everyone expected from that season’s outset.

Casual observers could be forgiven. Most thought the Mountaineers would be better than their 2018-19 version (they couldn’t get much worse), but there was still a ways to go before WVU reclaimed a spot in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

The conference’s coaches felt the same way. They voted the Mountaineers fifth in the preseason Big 12 poll. And a lot of people figured that would make them a solid NCAA tournament contender, though a deep NIT run would still be a fine finish for that group. Anything that proved progress.

Then WVU began the season winning 11 of its first 12 games, including a victory over then No. 2 Ohio State. The long road back got a bullet train built on the path.

The Mountaineers spent the rest of the season sliding up and down the AP top 25, finally settling in at No. 24 in the last poll of the pandemic-shortened season. Not just a pretty good end, but a very good end for a team that bumbled its way to 15 wins and a stack of embarrassing losses in 2018-19.

Yet last year, in the eyes of some observers, was supposed to be this year. The Mountaineers needed a season of seasoning. Young players like Oscar Tshiebwe needed a year to develop before they became real and consistent difference-makers.

That didn’t end up being the case. Tshiebwe almost instantly became one of the Big 12’s best big men, teaming with Derek Culver to make driving the lane on the Mountaineers a chore. Miles McBride became another freshman whose contributions quickly became crucial.

Now the 2020-21 season is upon WVU and the Big 12’s coaches have the Mountaineers slotted in third behind Baylor and Kansas. ESPN has the Bears and Jayhawks rated first and ninth, respectively, in its preseason top 25. It has WVU at No. 18, mainly because most of what made the Mountaineers formidable last season is back this season.

Still, one can throw a dash of caution in with the optimism. Last season’s Mountaineers started out 11-1. The rest of the season, they went 10-9. They averaged more turnovers per game than any team in the Big 12. Their 3-point shooting percentage wasn’t just the worst in the conference, but one of the worst in all of Division I.

Last season’s WVU team never truly seemed to pull it all together once the conference slate began. They’d shine one game and stumble over themselves the next. Some of it could be blamed on youth. After all, Tshiebwe and McBride were just freshmen, Culver just a sophomore. First-year junior college players also were leaned on to play major roles.

None of that can be used as a reason for errors in 2020. The young and new players have that year of experience. Other additions like Jalen Bridges are now available to shore up shooting deficiencies.

This was supposed to be the season that West Virginia University vaulted back into tournament contention. WVU decided to hit fast forward on that plan, but it doesn’t give the Mountaineers a mulligan to tread water around the bottom of the top 25 poll. The roster in Morgantown is one that should be able to contend for at least a Sweet 16 spot and maybe more.

WVU’s unexpected growth was a cause for applause in 2019-20. It brings even greater expectations for the Mountaineers in 2020-21. If that growth doesn’t continue, WVU fans will have a right to be disappointed.

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A quick programming note: This will be the last time you see this cheery face atop this column space. Friday marks my last day with the Gazette-Mail and HD Media. I’m headed up the road toward new adventures, but I’m profoundly thankful for everyone in the Kanawha Valley who has helped me find and tell all the fun and important stories since I rode into Charleston with the derecho in July 2012.

And a massive thank you to Gazette-Mailers and Daily Mailers past and present. It has been an honor to share a newsroom with such a talented crew of journalists. I know they’ll continue to be fantastic stewards for this region for a long time to come.

Contact Derek Redd at 304-348-1712 or derek.redd@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.