The West Virginia University men’s basketball team was going to trend on the young side this season even before injuries and dismissals knocked four of the Mountaineers top players off the roster this season, but once the absence of Sagaba Konate, Beetle Bolden, Esa Ahmad and Wesley Harris became a permanent reality, WVU’s young players have had no choice but to be thrust into more meaningful roles.
The experiment has been hit and miss for the most part. The Mountaineers did finish as the last place team in the Big 12 during the regular season, but after the early February dismissals of Ahmad and Harris there was a noticeable change in attitude on the court. There were still plenty of mistakes to go around, but West Virginia won some games down the stretch and several of those young players forced into more playing time almost by default late in season showed signs of promise for the future.
The future, however, will have to wait. The task at hand right now for WVU is this week’s Big 12 Conference tournament in Kansas City. If the Mountaineers will not be picked as an at-large team for this year’s NCAA tournament, so to get in they will need to win four games in four days at the Sprint Center — starting Wednesday with No. 7 seed Oklahoma [9 p.m., ESPNU].
Asked Monday on the Big 12 coaches conference call how he thought his young players might handle their first conference tournament experience, WVU coach Bob Huggins was open to suggestions.
“I don’t know,” Huggins said. “If you’ve got an idea, I’d be willing to listen. We’re just going to go play. I mean, the great thing about youth is their enthusiasm.”
West Virginia and Oklahoma are no strangers on the basketball court in recent seasons. The Mountaineers have had to deal with Sooner All-Americans Buddy Heild and Trey Young in recent seasons, but did come out on top in their only Big 12 tournament meeting. Three years ago at the 2016 Big 12 tournament, Heild hit a half-court shot at the final buzzer which would have given the Sooners the win, but on a review it was ruled he did not get it off in time and WVU advanced to that year’s championship game.
In more recent history, the two teams split their meetings this season, with the Mountaineers and Sooners each winning on their home court.
The last time they met, just over a week ago at Oklahoma, WVU made a late run but still came up on the short end of a 90-82 game. Huggins said the Mountaineers gave up too many easy baskets that Saturday in Norman, and it is something that will be addressed in practice Monday.
“I think the biggest thing we’ve got to do is our transition defense is awful — absolutely awful,” Huggins said. “[Oklahoma] got a lot of easy baskets because we didn’t do a very good job. I think that’s the first thing that we’ll talk about today — making sure we get back so we have four against five guys and not four against one or two.”
Huggins said on his Sunday radio show that if West Virginia does not win the Big 12 tournament and automatically qualify for the NCAA tournament, then the Mountaineers would take part in the College Basketball Invitational tournament.The CBI is a pay-to-play tournament. Teams play $50,000 to host first-round games while the visitor pays less. The price goes up every round, however the host school keeps revenue from the game.
“There are pluses and minuses,” Huggins said last week about the possibility of accepting a spot in a lower-tier postseason tournament. “I think the pluses are all the young guys I have will get a lot more practice. The negative side is attitudes and worrying about all of that stuff. To a degree, you want it to be a positive experience. You’d like to end the season on a good note.”
Huggins said if the Mountaineers are in the CBI, the plan is to host as many games as possible.
“Our kids are ecstatic to have the chance to keep playing,” Huggins said.