It is no secret that this season the West Virginia University men’s basketball team is out to improve on last season’s poor results and last-place finish in the Big 12.
The Mountaineers attempt at a bounce-back begins Friday, when Akron visits the WVU Coliseum in Morgantown (7 p.m. on AT&T Sports Network).
Veteran head coach Bob Huggins has been through a similar situation with the Mountaineers before. WVU went 13-19 in the 2012-2013 season to miss the NCAA tournament. The following season, the Mountaineers improved to 17-16 with an appearance in the National Invitational Tournament before a run of four-consecutive NCAA appearances. That ended with last season’s 15-21 record.
“The last time we made a comeback from not being very good we had Wanny [Juwan Staten] and Gary Browne and Tarik [Phillip] and Jaysean [Paige],” Huggins said. “Some older guys got hurt and those other guys got the chance to play and got better, and by the end I think what happened, particularly in the NCAA tournament and the conference tournament, is we wore people down because we could play a lot of people.”
Last season’s Mountaineers, by the end, did not have a full roster of players to throw at opposing teams. The core of that roster, the one which finished the season at least, is back with players such as sophomore point guard Jordan McCabe, senior swingman Jermaine Haley and sophomore Emmitt Matthews — and paired with newcomers Huggins hopes can make a difference right away.
That list, of course, begins with Oscar Tshiebwe. Last season’s Pennsylvania state player of the year and a McDonald’s All-American, Tshiebwe was picked as the Big 12’s preseason Freshman of the Year and figures to form a formidable front court with returning sophomore forward Derek Culver, a second-team All-Big 12 pick last season.
In last week’s exhibition against visiting Duquesne, Tshiebwe finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Mountaineers past the Dukes, but Huggins wasn’t always happy with the effort any of his front court players — Tshiebwe, Culver and senior Logan Routt — showed in the win.
“The other two can run, and Logan kind of works at running, but none of them ran,” Huggins said Thursday. “We didn’t get the easy baskets I was hoping we were going to get.”
Last season, the Mountaineers’ lost in the opener to visiting Buffalo, which turned out to be a pretty good team, in overtime. Obviously, Huggins and West Virginia would like to avoid a repeat of that performance. Akron went 17-16 last season with a quarterfinal loss in the Mid-American Conference tournament to the same Buffalo team that beat WVU last November.
“They can really, really shoot it now,” Huggins said of Akron. “They’ve got good players. They have a couple of transfers eligible and a couple of guys with experience.
“They’re a good team.”
Unlike last season’s Mountaineers, Huggins believes this group has the ability on offense to go on some runs and make other teams attempt to score with them. The trick, Huggins said, is stopping the other team from making those same runs.
“I think we can get some runs because we can score in transition and we can shoot the 3-ball,” Huggins said. “We’ve got to keep other people from making runs and at this point we haven’t done that.”