A lot has changed for the West Virginia University men’s basketball team since the end of last season.
The Mountaineers struggled for most of the 2018-2019 campaign, eventually bowing out at home in the College Basketball Invitational in a lopsided loss to Coastal Carolina.
This season, West Virginia has a rebuilt roster featuring players who were perhaps inexperienced a year ago and incoming freshmen who coach Bob Huggins believes can be difference-makers for the Mountaineers.
Ask Huggins what makes this year’s roster different, however, and you get a unique answer.
“We actually make shots,” Huggins said.
WVU connected on just 41 percent of its shots last season, ranking last among Big 12 schools.
“I think we have more guys who are capable shot-makers,” Huggins said. “Are they going to do it all the time? I don’t know. Hopefully they don’t all miss on the same day, which happens sometimes.”
As practice for the upcoming season gets started Friday in Morgantown at West Virginia’s palatial practice facility, the Mountaineers believe they have a group of players on this roster who can fill up the basket and the score book. Junior college transfers Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil, along with incoming true freshman guard Miles McBride, could feature heavily in the guard rotation for West Virginia this season, especially if their shots are falling — and Huggins has a hunch their shots are going to fall more often than not.
“We got more guys,” Huggins said. “Chase Harler has shot the ball well all summer. Sean McNeil has been laid up, but we look at him as an elite shooter. Taz Sherman can make shots and our returning guys can shoot. We have more guys who can make open shots, then add to that the firepower we are going to have on the inside, and we will be able to create more open shots on the perimeter.”
While the shots might be falling for the guards, Huggins has reservations about their passing ability.
“I told our guards the other day that the good thing about them is every time I go out to coach them I realize what a hell of a player I was,” Huggins said. “I didn’t do near the dumb things they do. I knew if a guy was open you are supposed to pass it to them, not hold it until he’s covered.”
In response to Huggins’ comment about his own basketball ability, the veteran WVU coach was asked if he could crack the starting lineup on this season’s team.
“Start?” Huggins said. “I’d be the captain.”
There was not much to laugh about for the Mountaineers last season, but so far this year there is at least one ongoing gag among the players.
Who is faster — sophomore forward Derek Culver or true freshman forward Oscar Tshiebwe?
“Derek said he was faster than Oscar,” Huggins said. “Oscar said, ‘No way.’ They were supposed to race, but they haven’t raced yet.
“Derek says to me, ‘Don’t you think I can run?’ I answered, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never seen you. I see trotting up and down the floor, but I never saw you run [last season].’ ”
The Mountaineers suddenly have a formidable front court with Culver, Tshiebwe and even senior Logan Routt available to lean on the opposition. Being able to get up and down the floor, Huggins said, would have that group be more successful.
“[Culver] needs to run,” Huggins said. “If we can wear on other people’s bigs and beat them up and down the floor, that’s great for us.”
MIXING IT UP ON DEFENSE
West Virginia has long been known for its “Press Virginia” pressure defense, but when things went bad last season Huggins and the Mountaineers had to abandon it for long stretches. Asked this week if WVU was going to get back to its old ways on the defensive end of the court, Huggins wouldn’t rule it out but noted that he would like to see his team be able to throw a variety of defenses at the opposition depending on the situation.
“I don’t think we should use a steady diet of anything on defense,” Huggins said. “When we were really good with the Final Four team [in 2010], we played a lot of point drop, matchup, man and we played 1-3-1. You can’t let them come down and do the same thing every time. You have to try to keep them off balance. I think that’s what we’re going to do, but I don’t know how we’re going to do it yet.”