Over its past two games, West Virginia’s men’s basketball team has seen two newcomers make their first big contributions to the program.
Against Oklahoma, redshirt freshman Jalen Bridges played a season-high 27 minutes and made seven of his nine shots, including a 5-6 mark from 3-point range, on his way to 19 points. Adding an assist and two steals against just one turnover, he showed the kind of all-around play that had head coach Bob Huggins singing his praises prior to his entry into the starting lineup.
Bridges’ play helped the Mountaineers rally against the Sooners before falling short, but the end result was different in the next player’s big leap up in production. Juco guard Kedrian Johnson saw 25 minutes of action against Oklahoma State (his previous high was nine in the Northeastern rout), and he capitalized with nine points, five assists and a blocked shot to help spark WVU’s rally from a 19-point deficit with less than a dozen minutes to play.
Johnson also contributed a huge defensive play in the late going, drawing a charge that fouled out OSU’s Cade Cunningham and helped preserve the Mountaineer lead.
“I thought Ke’ (Johnson) did an unbelievable job for us today. He gives us another guy who has foot quickness, and he’s really fast,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins observed. “He gets to the ball so much faster than some of our other guys do. We weren’t getting any pressure on the ball, and they were picking us apart, and I asked him, ‘Ke, can you go stop somebody? He said, ‘Yes sir.’ I thought he was terrific and far and away the difference in the game.”
The next step for Bridges and Johnson? Stacking solid performances one after the other. It’s unfair to expect Bridges to score 19 every time out, or for Johnson to dish out five assists in every game, but for WVU to win they can’t have rollercoaster seasons.
That need extends past scoring and playmaking. Both, but especially Bridges, have to be strong on the boards and defensively. Derek Culver can’t grab every rebound (although he certainly makes every effort to do so), and the Mountaineers have to provide support if they are to keep their advantage in that play phase viable. Johnson’s role there is less, but securing long defensive rebounds off opposing 3-point shots is an area that has been shaky, and he can help in the group effort to cut down those second chances.
Both must also be sound defensively. Johnson’s quickness and Bridges’ wingspan can make both effective defensively, especially when the Mountaineers choose to employ the halfcourt pressure that has helped spark several impressive runs this year. Maintaining intensity and getting pressure on the ball and in passing lanes has been a hit or miss proposition for WVU this season, and that’s an area which is almost entirely self-determined.
Bridges followed up his Oklahoma performance with a foul-plagued effort against OSU, playing only 12 minutes wile picking up four personals. He didn’t disappear, as he hit a three and grabbed three rebounds, but the need for more games like his ones against the Sooners and Northeastern is critical.
“Playing JB at the four, he is going to make shots for us. We can spread people out, which enables Kede to get it in the lane and pitch it to open people,” Huggins said, providing a glimpse of the tactics he hopes to employ as the West Virginia offense morphs to a four- and sometimes five-out approach.
That’s a sound plan, but it depends not only on the scoring and rebounding of Derek Culver, the all-around play of Deuce McBride, the shooting of Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil and the grit and defense of Gabe Osabuohien, but also on the play of Bridges and Johnson. If they can take the next, admittedly large, steps to become consistent performers, West Virginia can remain a Top 20 team.