West Virginia’s men’s basketball team is preparing to face Kansas State in a Big 12 conference match-up on Saturday. That standard description doesn’t really scratch the surface of the complexities which face a Mountaineer team coming off a COVID-19-induced hiatus that saw three games postponed. Any semblance of organized practices were ravaged by the absence of a majority of team members due to positive tests and contact tracing.
Who’s going to be available for WVU? Of those, what will their conditioning and game readiness be like? The Mountaineer coaching staff will have to start with those questions before trying to put together a plan of attack for Saturday’s contest. Navigating those difficulties, which are shared by any program that has had an enforced hiatus this season, adds another layer to game prep. It’s why, in the preseason, head coach Bob Huggins noted that the teams which have success this year are probably going to be the ones that avoid such interruptions.
|West Virginia (9-4/2-3) vs. Kansas State (5-10/1-6)||Sat Jan 23 4:00 PM ET|
|Bramlage Coliseum||Manhattan, KS||TV: ESPN2|
|NET: WVU-25 KS-187||Series: WVU 11-8||Last Game: WVU 66-57|
|Twitter: @BlueGoldNews||Facebook: BlueGoldNews||Web: BlueGoldNews.com|
While the Wildcats have had only one game postponed so far — a home contest against Iowa State — head coach Bruce Weber’s team has had a number of individual players forced to the sideline for multiple contests. K-State has seen seven players miss a total of 44 games so far due to injury or COVID-19 issues, and that has been devastating to a young team that had just four returning lettermen from a year ago.
Guards Mike McGuirl (Sr., 6-2, 195 lbs.) and DaJuan Gordon (So., 6-4, 190 lbs.) lead a Wildcat offense that has struggled to score, averaging fewer than 65 points per outing. McGuirl and Gordon have accounted for more than one-third of the ‘Cats scoring so far, and along with freshman standout Nijel Pack (6-0, 180 lbs.) have produced the majority of K-State’s offensive output. Pack has missed the last three games, and his return date is uncertain.
Gordon leads the team in rebounding with 6.7 per outing, but no other Cat averages as many as four. Along with general shooting inaccuracy and sub-par defense — teams are hitting 48% of their tries against K-State — it’s not a surprise that K-State has just one league win and is currently stuck in a five-game losing streak.
Huggins sees talent on the Cat roster, just not of the experienced variety.
“I think they have the best young group in the league,” Huggins said of a Wildcat squad that includes five first-year players and four true sophomores. “I think they get better and better with each game they play. They did a great job recruiting. These guys are good and talented.”
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While the status of individual players in terms of testing and contract tracing isn’t being revealed, there’s no doubt that the overall health of Derek Culver has been a problem. The tough Mountaineer forward battles through gauntlets that a football defensive lineman would find daunting, and as a result has suffered a variety of ailments with his shoulder, back and legs. Defenders constantly knee him in the back of his legs and lower body on post-up attempts, and the wear and tear is cumulative.
If there’s any bright spot to WVU’s two-week hiatus, it’s that Culver, and any others with such physical woes, might have had a chance to recover.
“Derek’s not going to cry about how bad he hurts, and he was hurt,” Huggins said. “The kid could not bend over. It’s a shame that he has to go through the physicality he goes through game in and game out. He spent the week before our last game in the doctor’s office, and came back and gave us a great effort. Hopefully he has healed up some.”
To get an idea of what Culver endures, take a few trips in this game and watch him all the time on the offensive end. NCAA officials were instructed a few years ago, and have had reinforcement every year since, on allowing freedom of movement and calling fouls on egregious physical play in the post, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to apply on those unleashing such tactics against Culver on a consistent basis.
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K-State is one of just six schools nationally (Duke, Kentucky, James Madison, North Carolina and Washington State) to start at least three true freshmen in one game this season. The 31 combined starts by Wildcat true freshmen are second only to Kentucky’s 39.
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Freshman Isaiah Cottrell’s surgery to repair damage to his Achilles tendon went as well as could be, and he has begun the first step in the rehabilitation process. That will be lengthy, and will keep him out the rest of this season at a minimum, but Huggins is optimistic about his approach to his recovery.
“Isaiah wants to play. And something that I love, he wants to do it in a West Virginia uniform. He is on a mission to be able to come back.”
Achilles’ injuries can be tricky to rehabilitate and navigate, and Huggins in no way wants to mortgage Cottrell’s future.
“You certainly don’t want to rush it,” he said of the rehabilitation process. “The kid has a great future.”