Wednesday night was the best of times and the worst of times for the West Virginia men’s basketball program.
Let’s address the bad news first.
The team was dealt another blow when it was announced that junior guard James “Beetle” Bolden decided he was going to transfer. Known for his sheer toughness and tenacity, Bolden was the Mountaineers’ best offensive weapon at guard. In the half season that he played for the Old Gold and Blue this year, his outside shot was a commodity, making him a valuable offensive contributor. His on-ball defense, especially his ability to draw a charge on an opponent, was second to none across the Big 12 Conference.
Had it not been for injuries, he probably would’ve had a solid season, which would have equated to another West Virginia victory or two. Who knows, but maybe he would’ve wanted to stay if that was the case. Undoubtedly, Bob Huggins would have found him a role for next year’s team. His talent and veteran experience will be missed, but maybe this was another example of Huggins “correcting the problem” like he said he would at the beginning of the year.
Regardless and more important, West Virginia found its core for the future during its inspiring 90-75 victory over Iowa State in the home regular season finale. Might I add that the Mountaineers’ shooting performance in the first half alone was the most impressive display of shooting during the Huggins era.
It all starts with Derek Culver. He’s one of the biggest mismatches in the country. Quite simply, it’s a tall task to guard him because of his frame, and opponents simply foul him in frustration because they can’t contain him. He’s built like Zeus. As Huggins has said, the sky’s the limit for Culver because he’s incredibly raw. Putting the ball on the floor and passing out of double teams are not his strong suit, but he’s nearly unstoppable inside of six feet. If he doesn’t make the shot, he’s immediately following his shot for a put back off an offensive rebound. Then he’s getting fouled, at the least.
If Erik Martin can help develop his game in the similar fashion as Sagaba Konate from his freshman to sophomore seasons and Culver continues to stay out of Huggins’ dog house, fans are going to see Culver put up an all-conference worthy season in 2019-20.
Nobody’s benefited more from West Virginia’s short bench than Jordan McCabe. Huggins has been forced to give him a longer leash, rather than yanking him back to the pine when he misses a shot. McCabe’s responded by finding the mojo that made him a star in high school. He’s got the confidence to take a long range three, and now that he’s making shots, he doesn’t feel the need to make a big defensive play to justify to Huggins that he should be on the floor. He’s a much more gifted offensive player than he is a defensive player, so while Huggins cares more about defense, he’s going to have to live with what McCabe gives him defensively because he’s a lethal offensive weapon that the team absolutely needs to compete.
While not as polished offensively yet as McCabe, Emmitt Matthews Jr. is another member of this core for the future. He’s got a guard’s frame and a guard’s offensive game despite being 6-foot-7. With Bolden gone, the starting two guard position will be ripe for the taking, so it will be interesting to see if he grabs it next year. What’s most impressive about Matthews is his offensive rebounding ability. He’s always looking to follow his shot, and if you watch, it’s always him and Culver on the glass fighting for boards.
Jermaine Haley’s performance Wednesday night was a pleasant surprise as he finally showed assertiveness to attack the basket. When he did, he was a force to be reckoned with because of his length. Seeing him in person for the first time, he’s really broad and arguably the second biggest guy on the floor next to Culver. He’s a slasher. If he continues to develop confidence then he doesn’t have to defer to his teammates for buckets, he’s going to be a really intriguing option at the three because of his versatility.
Who else is versatile but Lamont West. He’s not going to beat many defenders off the dribble, though. In fact, he’s limited to being a spot up, outside shooter. But, what was so impressive Wednesday was how aggressive he was getting after it on the offensive glass. He brought down more rebounds (12) than Culver did (11) against ISU. He’s long enough and built to be able to withstand the pounding in the post defensively, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him play the four next year.
Of course, fans will have to see what Oscar Tshiebwe brings to the table, and if Konate comes back for his senior season, then West Virginia may have the best frontcourt in the Big 12. Tshiebwe, Konate and Culver will all see major minutes. At guard, Brandon Knapper could be a viable option to spell McCabe off the bench. Considering they’ll be in-state seniors, it’s difficult to imagine Chase Harler and Logan Routt going anywhere, but if they did, that would give Huggins four more roster spots to fill and five if Konate goes pro.
What Huggins will do on the transfer waiver wire will be interesting to follow this summer because the Mountaineers need a couple of guards and Konate to come back to once again be competitive and relevant. The team winning its first road game of the season Saturday against Oklahoma State and a game in the Big 12 Tournament next week will springboard this team into the offseason with some confidence – exactly what it needs at this point.
Huggins has found his core for next year and kept this team together.