MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – There was both good news and bad news for the youngest members of the West Virginia basketball team coming out of Tuesday afternoon’s 73-51 victory over Northeastern at the WVU Coliseum.
With a large second half lead, the 8-2 Mountaineers finally got a chance to give some game action to the squad’s most inexperienced players. New faces like Kedrian Johnson, Taj Thweatt, Jalen Bridges and Seny Ndiaye received the most extensive minutes of their young careers. That experience could be a huge benefit moving forward, as WVU now pushes into Big 12 play, as it does for its next game on Saturday at Oklahoma (5-2).
But the bad news overshadowed all the good, as the best of those newcomers could be lost for a significant period of time after suffering an injury against Northeastern (1-5).
WVU freshman forward Isaiah Cottrell went down in the first half with a non-contact injury to the lower portion of his left leg. He was taken back to the locker room and did not return to the bench for the remainder of the contest. About 20 minutes after the game was over, Cottrell limped across the Coliseum court on crutches with his left foot in a walking boot. With family members, as well as WVU staff, slowly following him, the group headed to the Coliseum tunnel where they were going to get in an awaiting vehicle and proceed to a medical facility for an MRI.
The immediate concern is his injury is serious. It could possibly be an issue with his Achilles that, if true, would almost certainly be season ending.
“We won’t know until (Wednesday) morning,” said WVU head coach Bob Huggins when asked about the extent of Cottrell’s injury. “We should know fairly early in the morning.”
Cottrell was the only newcomer who had seen action in every game so far this season. Though he was only averaging 1.6 points and 1.4 rebounds in 5.5 minutes of action per outing, the hope was the 6-foot-10, 240-pounder, with the ability to play inside but also the skill to step out to the perimeter and hit shots, would develop into a weapon West Virginia doesn’t otherwise possess – a big man who is more than just a paint presence.
“He gives us what we don’t have with Derek (Culver) and Oscar (Tshiebwe); he’s a big who can spread the floor,” explained Huggins of Cottrell. “He can step out and make threes. He can pass the ball. He handles it well. The other two are more block guys; guys we’re going to throw it close to. (Isaiah) is a guy who can spread the floor.”
Whether Cottrell will be able to do that again this season will depend on what his postgame medical exam determines.
Cottrell saw early action Tuesday, playing nearly four minutes in the first half prior to his injury. He didn’t score, but he did pull down one rebound and handed out an assist.
Other WVU newcomers saw more extensive action when the game got out of reach.
Neither freshman forward Taj Thweatt and freshman center Seny Ndiaye scored against the Huskies, but they did see the most minutes in their college careers with seven and three respectively. Thweatt finished with three rebounds, the most in his short time at WVU. Ndiaye didn’t post anything other than minutes on the stat line, but playing time for the 6-foot-10, 235-pound native of Dakar, Senegal, may have to go up significantly in the future, depending on Cottrell’s status.
Huggins saw some good things from the youngsters who were on the floor for long stretches in the second half, but he also saw plenty he didn’t like.
“Well, we didn’t pass the ball,” said WVU’s veteran coach. “It was kind of like open gym, and it was whoever got it, shot it. It was not what we were looking for. We are looking for them to continue running offense and continue taking good shots. We just need to pass the ball. We don’t pass it well, and we don’t pass it often enough.”
Junior guard Kedrian Johnson, a first-year junior college transfer, had not previously scored for the Mountaineers, playing in six games for a total of 18 minutes prior to Tuesday. He finally got on the score sheet against Northeastern, though, posting five points, which included a 3-pointer, to go along with three steals in nearly nine minutes.
“He’s a talented guy,” Huggins said of the point guard. “He’s our fastest guy. He’s got really good lateral quickness. (Sophomore point guard) Deuce (McBride) has had a pretty good career to this point, and (junior point guard) Jordan (McCabe) has had a pretty good career to this point. (Johnson) is competing with those two guys who obviously know what needs done a lot more than what Kedrian does.
“With what’s going on, this is basically a free year,” added Huggins in terms of the junior’s eligibility. “What would normally happen is he would have one year left, but now he has two years left, so we are going to keep working with him. He may happen, toward the end (of the 2020-21 season) as we start getting to conference play with all the travel and everything else, he could be a really good guy for us. He just has to learn what we need done like those two guys have.”
Another young player who got a lot of game action against Northeastern was redshirt freshman Jalen Bridges. The 6-foot-7, 220-pound forward from Fairmont, West Virginia, set career highs in terms of minutes played (17), points scored (6) and rebounds (5). He had only scored a total of seven points in his previous eight games as a Mountaineer.
“J.B. was really struggling, but the last week or so he has been shooting the ball really well,” noted Huggins. Sherman hit three of his four field goal attempts against the Huskies.
“I see Jalen literally every day, and I talk to him every day,” said WVU junior Emmitt Matthews, who occupies the small forward position ahead of Bridges. “Jalen is like the little brother I never had. Obviously I want the best for him, so I’m talking to him.
“I want him to be more aggressive, which is something I also need to do,” added Matthews, who equaled his season high with 13 points on Tuesday. “It’s me and him that need to pick up our game. That’s really going to help our team.
“For us to that do that as wings, that would really take a lot of pressure off our guards, and also off Oscar and Derek down inside.”
For Bridges, Johnson and West Virginia’s other younger players, the hope is their performances against Northeastern are signs of more good things to come.
Unfortunately, those positives may be outweighed by the negative in terms of Cottrell’s injury.