The West Virginia University men’s basketball team has been good this season, just check the Mountaineers’ No. 17 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 along with very high marks in the NCAA NET rankings and various other methods used to judge college basketball teams.
Still, watching the team work its way through non-conference play it was hard to escape the feeling that something was seriously missing from these Mountaineers.
Say hello to Miles “Deuce” McBride and Brandon Knapper, WVU’s unlikely, but best, backcourt pairing.
West Virginia’s guard play has been inconsistent at best for the majority of this season, but since WVU went to Cleveland to beat then-No. 2 Ohio State and in the three Big 12 games since the duo of McBride, a freshman, and Knapper, a sophomore in his third year on campus, have been steady hands in the backcourt when West Virginia has needed them.
Against No. 22 Texas Tech on Saturday, McBride was the star with a career-high 22 points while Knapper, who local readers should certainly remember from his time as a standout at South Charleston High, played 25 minutes and scored 10 points. In the second half, as WVU held off the Red Raiders before eventually putting them away down the stretch, McBride and Knapper were the only Mountaineers with made field goals in the entire half.
More important for the former Black Eagle star were his zero turnovers against the TTU.
Knapper had trouble finding the floor for Bob Huggins because Huggins couldn’t trust him to hang on to the ball. Now, that seems to not be the case. Knapper averaged fewer than 10 minutes per game in non-conference play but has seen that jump over the last week. He played 14 minutes and scored eight points early last week at Oklahoma State before jumping to 25 minutes on the floor Saturday.
“I couldn’t play Knap before because he turned it over a bunch,” Huggins said. “We had a heart-to-heart. I told him, ‘You’ve got to do the right thing, or I can’t play you.”
Message received. Huggins has not been shy about telling the media how well Knapper has performed in practice this season, but those in-game turnovers were holding him back. He is still practicing at a high-level, Huggins said, and it is finally starting to translate to the real games.
“[Knapper] has really worked hard at it,” Huggins said. “He’s really concentrated. He is getting better and better and better.”
“He shot the ball really well in practice. He’s been our best shooter in practice for the last two days. You play the best in practice, you ought to play. He played the best in practice.”
McBride has certainly been more consistent throughout the season than Knapper, but it always interesting to see how the freshman perform when the bright lights are on — like a WVU Coliseum packed with 14,111 fans and a national audience on ESPN for a game against last season’s national runner-up bright lights.
“It’s just me playing fearless,” McBride said after Saturday’s game. “Coach is trusting me with the ball to take shots I make. I’m making the shots in practice and it’s no different in the game.
“It’s just me playing fearless, letting the game come to me, taking the right shots and making the right passes.”
He’s not kidding. McBride scored his 22 points Saturday while going 8-of-11 from the field, 1-of-1 from 3-point distance and 5-of-6 at the foul line.
“He is not afraid,” Huggins said. “His high school coach talked about his toughness and his lack of fear.”
McBride will need to keep that composure, especially now that the word is out on how good he is. If he was flying below the radar prior to Saturday, perhaps due to fellow freshman Oscar Tshiebwe receiving so much well-deserved hype this season, he won’t have that luxury going forward.
“We told our players that McBride was one of the best freshman in the Big 12,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said Saturday. “He’s a guy that doesn’t play like a freshman.”
‘A REAL COOL GUY’
Charleston native and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Ryan Switzer joined us last week on the All ‘Eers podcast to talks some WVU hoops, and on Saturday the West Virginia high school football legend from George Washington High went to his first Mountaineer game at the Coliseum since he was a kid.
Switzer — who grew up a diehard West Virginia basketball fan — had good seats right on the floor with his wife Gabbie, a former University of North Carolina cheerleader, for WVU’s win against Texas Tech and took advantage of the vantage point by showing love to some of the Mountaineers’ Mountain State natives. Switzer posed for a photo with Knapper and could been seen shaking hands with senior guard Chase Harler, a Moundsville native who was a standout at Wheeling Central Catholic.
“[He told me to] just to keep it up,” Harler said. “I follow him on Twitter, so I see him tweet about us after games. I could tell he’s a fan and I know he’s from West Virginia. That’s the first time I’ve ever met him. He seems like a real cool guy.”