According to his head coach, junior forward Emmitt Matthews was the Mountaineer most adversely affected during the recent COVID-19 outbreak that caused West Virginia to postpone three games and forced Matthews to miss nearly two weeks of workouts as he had to quarantine.
Matthews reportedly lost 18 pounds while ill, and his 6-foot-7 frame didn’t have any extra weight to begin with, as he could be best described as sinewy when weighing his normal 215 pounds.
The Tacoma, Washington, native didn’t miss any games once WVU restarted following its postponements, but he obviously didn’t have his normal bounce.
He averaged just 13 minutes in the first three contests after the coronavirus-caused pause, averaging just a tad over four points to go along with two rebounds in those meetings with Kansas State, Texas Tech and Florida.
“Emmitt was affected the worst by the situation,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said before the Mountaineers departed for Ames for its meeting with Iowa State. “Derek (Culver) is not back to what he was either, but he’s a lot further back than Emmitt. Derek wasn’t affected nearly has badly as Emmitt was.
“I’m looking at a lot of you (media members), and it wouldn’t hurt any of us to lose 18 pounds, but when you’re Emmitt, you can’t afford to do that,” continued West Virginia’s veteran coach.
One day after Huggins’ pregame comments, Matthews went out and displayed his old vigor. He scored 13 points and pulled down seven rebounds against the Cyclones. The Mountaineers needed everything Matthews could provide, as they had to scrap until the final seconds to hold on for a 76-72 victory in Hilton Coliseum Tuesday night.
“This is the most minutes by far that he has played,” said Huggins, as Matthews’ 26 minutes against Iowa State topped his previous post-illness high of 21 against Texas Tech, “and I thought he played pretty well.”
With each day, Matthews is getting a little stronger, getting in better shape.
“When I first came back from the break, I got a little tired,” admitted the former Washington state class 3A high school player of the year, “but that’s going to go away once you start practicing and doing all the extra stuff I’m doing. You get back into game shape pretty quickly when you do that.”
Matthews was averaging 8.0 points and 4.0 rebounds while healthy in his first 13 games of the season, but those numbers basically got cut in half as he tried to battle back from the illness.
He rediscovered his energy in Ames, though.
He’s also helped by a West Virginia offense that now is better suited for his skill set.
WVU had been trying to constantly feed the post with Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe both in the lineup during the early part of the season. Since Tshiebwe’s departure after 10 games, though, the Mountaineers have had to change their offensive scheme, and it now features more movement and drive-and-kicks.
That new system seems to be a very good fit for a slashing athlete like Matthews.
“The style of offense we’re now running, I feel like I can create more for myself and for other guys on the team,” the junior forward explained. “I don’t have to just sit outside and only rely on cutting to the basket and shooting open threes. Now with just one guy in the paint and shooters around him, it’s easier to get by your one defender, kick it to a shooter for a three or go score yourself.”
Matthews did a little of everything against the Cyclones. He hit four of his nine field goal attempts, including one of three tries from 3-point range. He also drained all four of his foul shots, and had a steal as well.
“Today Emmitt gave us a big lift,” stated WVU senior center Gabe Osabuohien. “He got offensive rebounds, scored inside and was able to be the Emmitt we’re used to seeing.
“We need to see more of that if we’re going to be the team we want to be.”
Matthews’ 13-point effort against the Cyclones was the first time he has reached double figures in the scoring column since he had 11 against Oklahoma on Jan. 2.
A month later, it appears the junior is getting some pep back in his step, and the Mountaineers hope it’s a sign of things to come.
“He’s close to being back,” noted Huggins, whose club improved to 12-5 overall and 5-3 in Big 12 action after Tuesday’s victory. “I don’t think it’s his wind now but a matter of gaining the weight back. I think as soon as he gains the weight back, he’ll be every bit of what he was.”