West Virginia’s men’s basketball team didn’t play at peak efficiency in its first three games of the season, but it was still able to defeat a trio of quality opponents and take home the trophy of the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic.
With projected stalwarts such as Oscar Tshiebwe suffering through foul-induced benchings, and shooting woes continuing to bedevil the Mountaineers at times, it was the presence of veteran Gabe Osabuohien, who helped get the Mountaineers past some rocky stretches.
“(Osabuohien) brings a lot to the table for us. He’s experienced. He’s a guy who is helping the younger guys out on the floor the most,” head coach Bob Huggins said after the Mountaineers, steadied by the senior transfer, rallied past Western Kentucky 70-64 on Friday afternoon to claim the tournament title.
That praise is, in its way, very reflective of Osabuohien’s contributions. It’s wide-ranging. It’s non-specific. It’s hard to quantify with just numbers, stats or analytics. But the surest conclusion is that West Virginia might not be 3-0 without him.
Take, for example, his showing against the Hilltoppers.
With both Tshiebwe and Derek Culver on the bench saddled with two fouls in the first half, Osabuohien stepped in to the primary post role for a stretch. Neither of the starters had grabbed a rebound over the first 20 minutes, but Osabuohien filled that role, and wound up with a team-high eight in the game. He also hit three field goals in four attempts, blocked a shot and dealt out five assists for a Mountaineer team that was knocked off-stride by the absence of Culver and Tshiebwe, who combined for just 17 first half minutes.
“He’s the guy that really sets the tempo for us in terms of how hard we play,” said Huggins, who observed that his team did not measure up to the Hilltoppers’ effort out of the gate.
That observation, while perhaps true in the overall, definitely did not apply to the 6-foot-7, 235-pound bundle of energy that is Osabuohien. From the moment he hit the floor – a statement true in both the figurative and literal senses – he gives the Mountaineers a spark.
Perhaps even more telling of his value is the way in which he can morph his game to the situation. After stepping to the fore in the first half, he reverted to his usual, yet no less valuable, all-around supporting role in the second.
With Culver and Tshiebwe back in the game, and with the former scoring 11 points and the latter grabbing seven boards in the final 20 minutes, it was back to filling other columns in the stat sheet for the Toronto, Ontario, product. Making unsung plays while making sure his teammates got back into the flow, he managed what could be a difficult in-game transition seamlessly.
“Gabe is a Swiss Army knife,” said Culver, turning an excellent comparison. “He can do anything. He is a glue guy. He is going to work hard, and be the first one on the floor. Hats off to Gabe. He really works. He does all the dirty work. He sets screens, he gets the box outs. He does all the things that don’t pop up on the stat sheet, but you know Gabe is doing them.”
Osabuohien continued to work on the glass in the second half, finishing with a team high eight. He also took a pair of charges to force Hilltopper turnovers, picked off a steal, and perhaps most importantly, added four assists to his total. Early on, he fed Culver for an inside score, the dished outside to Deuce McBride for a jumper. Another high-low pass to Culver at the 11:43 mark was followed by an inside-out assist to Taz Sherman. Those four second half assists all came in a five-minute stretch when the Mountaineers cut a 10-point deficit to two. He also hit a pair of three throws in that decisive rally, which turned the game in favor of the Mountaineers on the strength of a 24-7 run. By the time it was over, WVU erased a 45-35 deficit to take a 59-52 lead.
“Gabe comes in and makes great hustle plays. He’s a great off the ball defender,” Huggins noted. “He took a couple of big charges for us when we were making our comeback. He has rebounded it better than he did a year ago, and has shot it better than a year ago.”
True statements all, but ones that still don’t capture everything that Osabuohien does for the team. He leads the Mountaineers in one standard stat – steals – and probably in off-the-books numbers such as charges taken and floor burns. He’s third in rebounds while playing just 18.3 minutes per game. He’s also second in assists, and is probably the team’s best passer, finding teammates both inside and out when receiving the ball in the high post.
Resisting the urge to take shots from that area, which he knows isn’t a strength of his game, he instead either finds open teammates or draws defenders to him with controlled dribbles, forcing rotations and creating chances for teammates. Add in the leadership by example that Huggins described, and while he might not be WVU’s MVP to date (Culver was for the tournament), he is the player best suited to fill whatever role the Mountaineers need.