It’s a period of adjustment for the West Virginia men’s basketball team.
The Mountaineers are adjusting to a new lineup, as two of their big men – Oscar Tshiebwe, who has transferred to Kentucky, and Isaiah Cottrell, who has been lost for the season after suffering a torn Achilles – are no longer available.
Because of those losses, the Mountaineers are adjusting to a new style, which is more dependent on the perimeter and less on the post.
Now the Mountaineers are adjusting to an extended period away from game action, as three scheduled contests were postponed recently due to COVID-19 positive tests and contact tracing within the program.
The best-case scenario is that West Virginia will go two weeks between games (Jan. 9 against Texas to Jan. 23 at Kansas State), as the contests against Baylor (Jan. 12), TCU (Jan. 16) and Oklahoma State (Jan. 19) were postponed. Not only is WVU missing game action, but some members of the squad will also be unable to practice or workout for an extended period of time.
“Obviously one problem is the conditioning. That’s always a concern when you miss time,” West Virginia associate head coach Larry Harrison. “With us, because we’re switching our style of play mid-stream like we are, that’s a concern. We had played three games without Oscar, and I think offensively we were getting better playing four-out/one-in with a lot of movement. With the pause in our program, that’s a concern, because we have to kind of re-teach things to make sure guys understand spacing and movement. They have to grasp that pretty rapidly, because we may only have one or two days to prepare for the next game.”
Without Tshiebwe and Cottrell, West Virginia is left with just one true big man in 6-foot-10, 255-pound Derek Culver. Averaging a double-double with 13.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, certainly the junior forward is playing well, but without a second big along side him, the Mountaineers’ twin-tower style had to change.
“We’re going the route of everyone else in the NBA and college basketball. Everyone is playing down; everyone is playing small. Now we pretty much match up with a majority teams in our conference,” explained Harrison, who has been a member of Bob Huggins’ WVU staff since 2007. “If you look around college basketball, there weren’t many teams that had two bigs like we had with Oscar and Derek. I don’t know who else had bigs of that caliber who were playing together at the same time. Now we’re kind of playing like everyone else. I don’t know if you would consider it small ball, considering we’re playing two 6-foot-7 guys at the three and the four (small forward Jalen Bridges and power forward Emmitt Matthews), but that’s the direction we’re headed.”
If West Virginia wants to remain a dominant rebounding team – it currently is +5.0 in rebounding margin, which is the fourth-best mark in the Big 12 – then Culver is going to need some help on the glass. The loss of Tshiebwe takes away 7.8 rebounds per game, and Cottrell was averaging 1.4 until he was injured 10 games into his freshman year. Now WVU is going to lean on guys like Gabe Osabuohien (4.8 rebounds per game), Matthews (4.0), Deuce McBride (3.5), Bridges (1.7) and Taz Sherman (1.6).
“Obviously with Derek and Oscar, we had bigs in there who could bully and muscle their way to rebounds,” noted the 65-year-old Harrison. “Now with movement, I think we can still be a good offensive rebounding team, because it’s hard to box a player out who is constantly moving. I think we can use our athleticism with Emmitt, Jalen and even Taz and Deuce to get offensive rebounds.
“Guys like Gabe, Emmitt and Jalen have to help Derek in terms of rebounding,” he added. “There were times in the last three games that when Derek shot the ball, no one went to get an offensive rebound. And if Derek didn’t shoot the ball, he was the only one there to rebound it. Derek is still going to get his, but he does need some help.”
Defense is another area that has to change for the Mountaineers with their transition in style. They already had some defensive issues, allowing 69.7 points per game (sixth in the Big 12) and a field goal percentage of 42.5% (seventh in the Big 12).
“If you look at the majority of the good defensive teams around the country, playing down kind of goes hand-in-hand with the good defensive teams,” explained Harrison, who grew up on Danbury, Connecticut. “Now instead of figuring out how to play the ball screens, you pretty much just switch. You just keep people in front of you now, so they won’t be able to be able to turn the corner on you or have as many straight-line drives.”
Not only will defense change, but West Virginia is also changing offensively.
“In the past, we pretty much ran sets, where people went from point A to point B,” said Harrison, who also was an assistant for Huggins at Cincinnati (1989-97) and then was the head coach at Hartford (2000-06). “Now we’re four-out/one-in, and we’re relying on guy’s basketball IQ. There is more ball movement and body movement and not as much standing around.
“Now it’s just figuring out how to play. That’s the adjustment
“This should help Taz and Deuce, because those two can create their own offense,” the veteran assistant stated. “I also think it opens things up for Emmitt Matthews. He can become more of a slasher-type guy getting to the basket.
“Given the limited number of guys we have right now, it also opens up the door for a guy like Taj Thweatt,” Harrison continued. “He’s one of our more athletic guys. Instead of him having to know all the offensive sets, with the four-out/one-in, not that he can just run around without knowing what he’s doing, but he doesn’t have to worry about making as many mistakes as far as where to be.”
With a record currently standing at 9-4, Harrison still believes this WVU squad can accomplish good things.
“I think we can become a much, much better team as time goes on,” he stated. “We’ve only played three games without Oscar. If you look from the Oklahoma game to the Texas game, I think we’ve gotten better on the offensive end. We just have to keep working on the defensive end. Playing small, defensively we’ll get better.”