Assuming there are no more changes in the schedule, West Virginia will get its 2020-21 men’s basketball season underway at 7 p.m. Wednesday against South Dakota State at The Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with the game airing on ESPN2.
The shuffling of the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic lineup has made for a number of different preparation paths for the 15th-ranked Mountaineers, but in a way, that might be a good thing. With postponements, rescheduling and uncertainty the only predictable aspect of this season, the Mountaineers have gotten a good dose of being adaptable while assimilating new information quickly.
“Really, it’s not a lot different between a conference tournament situation or last year in Cancun when things changed,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said Tuesday from inside the venue. “I think we will be fine no matter who [the opponent] is. There’s not a lot we haven’t already thrown at them or shown them in how we are going to defend.”
While Huggins’ support staff has undoubtedly been busy reviewing video of potential opponents — VCU has recently entered that group — he is now getting his team into game mode.
“We have had a lot of time to go over a lot of things,” noted WVU’s veteran coach. “We have guarded a lot of different things and guarded a lot of different personnel, and I think we are ready defensively because we have prepared for four different teams. I think in some ways it was good for our guys.
“Right now we are concentrating on Game One, and taking care of our business there and then move on,” Huggins said.
West Virginia will face either VCU or Utah State in the second round on Thursday, with the game time to be announced.
While some might think West Virginia’s opening opponent will provide an easy win, that sort of belief is likely based on name recognition, not an assessment of the South Dakota State roster. Although the Jackrabbits aren’t the brand name of Ohio State, Texas A&M or even Creighton, they are highly regarded.
South Dakota State was picked to win the Summit League in a runaway, polling 33 of the 36 available first-place votes this preseason. The Jackrabbits also feature the Summit’s preseason player of the year, Doug Wilson.
“They are really a very difficult team to guard. They space the floor well, and have so many guys who if you leave them open they are going to make shots,” Huggins noted. “They pass the ball well, and defensively they do a great job of making you score the ball over them.
“[Wilson] is a left-shoulder guy like most right-handers are. He has a quick release and his understanding of how to play is very good. They put him in a position where he can make plays, and because they shoot it well they spread it so much, he is [isolated] around the rim a lot.”
Wilson made almost 63% of his shots a year ago, averaging 18.6 points and 6.4 rebounds on his way to league player of the year honors.
He’s not the only standout on the State roster, though. Forward Matt Dentlinger and guard Noah Freidel are also all-league performers who make the Jackrabbits much more than a one-man show.
When West Virginia is in man-to-man defense, it will be interesting to see who draws Wilson as a defensive assignment. The logical assumption is Derek Culver, whom Huggins called one of the most athletic players on the team and who has the size and strength to battle Wilson (6-7, 210) in the lane and on the blocks.
n With COVID safety a major issue heading into the winter, there have been concerns over West Virginia traveling to this event. Huggins notes that The Pentagon and event staff have delivered on all of their safety measures.
“It’s been great here. It has been exactly what we were told it would be. We are in a bubble, and the facilities here are unbelievable,” Huggins said. “It has been a really good experience.”
While not foolproof, some measure of confidence can be taken in the fact that arrival testing knocked Wichita State out of the event — much as the same protocol prior to The Basketball Tournament did to WVU’s alumni team, Best Virginia.
n The Sanford Pentagon is a familiar venue for the South Dakota State program, which has played six games there over the past few years. They Jackrabbits will double that total in 2020-21, playing six regular-season games in the facility this season.
From there, they will try to build another postseason run — a common occurrence in their recent history. Prior to last season, they have participated in eight consecutive postseason events, including five NCAA Tournaments, a pair of National Invitation Tournaments and one trip to the College Basketball Invitational.
n WVU has won early-season tournaments in four of the last six seasons, and has five such titles overall under Huggins.
n Huggins and North Carolina head coach Roy Williams will continue to battle for positioning on the winningest all-time Division I coaches list, but both will move up one notch at some point this year, if games are played as expected. Williams (885 wins) and Huggins (881) trail Bob Knight, who has 902. Knight is No. 11 the list of all-time winningest college men’s coaches, and No. 4 among those who have worked at the Division I level.