MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s massively revamped men’s basketball team made its first public appearance on Friday night at the WVU Coliseum, and although the scrimmage was loosely officiated and often defense-free, there were a number of observations to be made concerning the 2021-22 Mountaineers.
Before getting into those, though, a couple of caveats: Judgments based largely on the statistics complied would be very misleading, as the teams played just two 15-minute halves, with fouls only called in the most egregious of situations. Also, the teams were split up, with likely/possible starters or those expected to earn major minutes split between the Blue and Gold teams, which could have robbed each side of the some of the synergy that’s hoped to be developed during the year.
With those cautions in mind, on to some thoughts and initial impressions:
Running the offense and handling the ball on the perimeter is still a search in progress, but might not be at a level of concern that some have placed it at. Transfer Malik Curry and returnee Kedrian Johnson were mostly solid in getting their teams into their attacks, and passed the ball reasonably well, as they combined for 11 assists against four turnovers, and didn’t get stuck with the ball on many occasions.
Freshman Seth Wilson, whose strong build and aggressive play backed up some early observations of his ability, was also respectable, and although he probably isn’t ready to challenge for major minutes yet, he has a number of positives upon which to build. Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil also took some turns getting things started, giving WVU some veteran presence if need be.
This isn’t to say that the Mountaineers have found a total solution to its questions at the position yet, but they do have some candidates that look to be able to get the ball into the lane and find teammates for open shots. This isn’t going to be a point-guard dominated team, but that might not be a requirement.
The near-total absence of defense was disturbing, and contributed some to the high level of offensive success. As such, all of the stats, such as shooting percentages and relatively low turnover numbers, have to be viewed with a huge grain of salt.
On-ball defense was OK at a few stretches, but many ballhandlers cruised past defenders like high-performance cars on the Autobahn. Hopefully that is a sign of proficiency in that area, but fundamentals of positioning and the ability to stay in front of the ball were mostly lacking. Again, the hope is that some of this is due to the nature of the scrimmage, but if West Virginia’s defense resembles any of this during regular games, it’s going to need to score in the 80s to have any chance.
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Speaking of scoring, most of it is, as expected, going to have to come from the perimeter, the mid-range, and from drives to the bucket. Only on a handful of possessions did WVU throw the ball to a posted-up player with his back to the basket, and that was mostly Isaiah Cottrell, who did show a respectable jump hook over the shoulder on one sequence. There aren’t going to be many post isolations this season, as were a staple of the offense over the last couple of years.
On the plus side, Dimon Carrigan and Pauly Paulicap did get to the rim for lobs and 3-4 dunks, but again, there’s that lack of defense to be concerned with, as rotations when the ball got free were as rare as chants of “Let’s Go Pitt” in the Coliseum.
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All three true freshmen have some chops. Whether that’s enough to see some time this year is still to be determined, both Wilson and Kobe Johnson, who have physiques that look more like those of juniors than first-year players, seemed at ease in competing alongside and against their older teammates. Johnson drained four of his five 3-point attempts, and Wilson, as mentioned, was not overwhelmed in setting the offense.
Jamel King, the late addition to the class, looks taller than his listed 6-foot-7 and like a number of his teammates has a good wingspan and did not back down from any situation. He had a monster contested dunk in the second half that sent Gabe Osabuohien, an opponent on the night, into a huge celebration that included a couple of chest bumps.
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Jalen Bridges continues to be deadly from 3-point range in the corner, which helps keep other spots open on the perimeter for teammates. His game-best 21 points seemed effortless, as his shot looks even smoother and more well-honed that it was a year ago. Add in his game-high eight rebounds, and there’s no question he’s going to be a vital cog this year.
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Osabuohien might have a future as a shot doctor. OK, that’s an overreaction, but he demonstrated what head coach Bob Huggins explained a day earlier, when he said that the super senior had fixed his shot mechanics without assistance from the coaching staff.
A careful watch in pregame revealed a much more repeatable shooting form, with his hand under the ball and a softer release, and that carried over to most of his attempts in the game. There were a couple of 3-point attempts that he’s not going to be taking in the regular season, and one rushed drive/shot that resulted in a heave, but overall the improvement was remarkable.
This does not constitute a prediction that he’s going to become a massive scorer. However, if he can drive the ball from the key and put up good shots as he did in this game, opponents aren’t going to be able to leave him alone as they did a year ago. That’s also going to help his ability to pass the ball, which was already at a high level.
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Seny N’diaye is likely headed for another developmental year, but it’s clear he has been putting in time in the weight room. While he has not massively bulked up, he has much more definition in his upper body, and that should allow him to compete more effectively.
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Whether consciously or not, or due to the split roster, Isaiah Cottrell showed that he is not just an outside shooter. He made six of seven shots inside the arc, with a couple coming off drives, a couple in the mid-range, and more off passes from teammates. In all, it was a tantalizing display of his all-around offensive game, and that is going to be critical for the Mountaineers this year. He can certainly shoot outside, but having scoring threats in the 6-15 foot range (analytics be damned!) are important in making WVU’s offense tougher to defend all over the court.