MORGANTOWN — The West Virginia University men’s basketball team began its summer practice session on Wednesday in Morgantown, and Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins had a look on his face during his time meeting with the media that wasn’t seen much during last season’s disappointing run.
Huggins was smiling.
It was a tell that things are going well for WVU as the Mountaineers prepare for a three-game tour of Spain next month. Last year, Huggins was clearly not happy about the attitudes of several players on and off the Coliseum court. Those guys are gone, and what’s left — and, more importantly, what they do — has the veteran coach smiling.
“Today we started kind of getting ready,” Huggins said. “We’re going to play three games over there and I think it’s a great opportunity for them to bond. We’ve got a lot of new guys and the more time they spend together I think the better that’s going to be for us.”
Huggins pointed out a pair of WVU sophomores — guards Jordan McCabe and Emmitt Matthews — as players who have really taken on a leadership role this offseason. He pointed out that those two have done a lot in the name of strengthening the team’s bond with each other, and he is starting to see that pay off. It was not that way last season as the Mountaineers finished last in the Big 12 regular season and missed the NCAA tournament.
“Jordan and Emmitt, I think, have been great,” Huggins said. “Those guys do a great job of trying to include everybody in virtually everything they do. They embraced some of the things that we’ve always done — the children’s hospital thing, we’ve played paintball, we’ve shot skeet, we played softball — we’ve done all that and they embrace that. I’m not so sure that’s been the case the last few years.”
McCabe and Matthews have caught Huggins’ eye on the court this summer as well. McCabe is coming back from knee surgery to repair a torn MCL in April, but Huggins said he is still pleased with the progress both sophomores have made since the end of last season.
“Jordan played with a torn MCL last year and then had the surgery [in April],” Huggins said. “We’ve been fighting with him about, ‘Don’t do so much.’ Most guys you’re fighting with to do something, and he understands. He’s been pretty good.
“I think Emmitt, at least to this point, is the most improved guy that we’ve had in a long time. He’s playing extremely well. I think he’s grown a little bit, he’s added some weight and his skill level has really improved and that means he has obviously put a lot of time in.”
McCabe and Matthews have stood out so far, but Huggins indicated they were certainly not the only ones doing their part on and off the court to make sure what happened to the Mountaineers last season doesn’t repeat this time around.
“The biggest thing is you don’t have to coach enthusiasm with these guys,” Huggins said. I think a year ago, it was like you’re trying to coach effort and you’re trying to coach basketball, and it’s hard to do both. These guys, their effort has been terrific, their attitude has been great. They spend a lot of time in this building. We’ve only been allowed to work out [with coaches], by rule, for an hour. Those guys are in here way more than an hour on their own, and that wasn’t the case before.”
The experienced, but not necessarily older, Mountaineers have gone out of their way to get the new players — like five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American Oscar Tshiebwe — up to speed with how things work at WVU, Huggins said.
“I think Oscar was the last one in and they’ve taken him under their wing,” Huggins said. “They’re good. You really can’t tell the difference between the old guys and the new guys. Of course, the old guys aren’t that old — except for Jermaine [Haley]. They get along great. They hang together. It’s a lot like the really good teams we had in the past.”
Logan Routt is back on scholarship for WVU, Huggins said Wednesday. The big man who was a standout at Cameron High began his career in Morgantown as a walk-on during his first two seasons (one of those a redshirt year), was on scholarship during his third season then went back to being a walk-on last season.
Routt was helped by the fact that he has been on the state’s PROMISE scholarship during his time as a walk-on, but Huggins said he’s deserving of an athletic scholarship and will have one for his final season with the Mountaineers.
“[Routt] has been great,” Huggins said. “He’s like, ‘Coach, if you need a scholarship, that’s fine.’ He’s never felt left out or anything like that.”
That, in turn, changes things just a bit as far as West Virginia’s current scholarship situation is concerned.
Routt’s scholarship gives WVU 12, one under the NCAA limit. That spot could be filled soon, however. Shooting guard Deven Cambridge, listed at 6-foot-5, will announce his collegiate destination on Sunday at the conclusion of the Peach Jam summer tournament in South Carolina. If Cambridge picks WVU, there is a possibility he could be included on the trip to Spain.
Junior college signees Tajzmel Sherman and Ethan Richardson are not yet on campus, and Huggins did not sound optimistic about their chances of getting there for the start of the final session of summer classes in Morganotown set to begin next week. Huggins also indicated that one or even both of those players are likely to miss the trip to Spain with the team next month.
“We’ll have at least one, maybe two, finishing things up,” Huggins said. “We may have one more. We’ll see how it goes.”