The small forward position for the 2020-21 Mountaineer men’s basketball team is one that is a mixture of experience and promising newcomers.
Emmitt Matthews (6-7, 201 lbs., Jr.) has played in more games at WVU (63) and started more of them (42) than any other current West Virginia besides guard Jordan McCabe (66 games played, 44 starts). Matthews started the first 30 games last year but came off the bench in the home finale, as coach Bob Huggins rewarded his three seniors – Jermaine Haley, Chase Harler and Logan Routt – with the starts. Ironically, Matthews had his best statistical game of the season in the one he didn’t start, scoring 18 points against Baylor.
This year Matthews will be helped at the small forward position by a pair of Mountaineers who has never previously seen game action for WVU – Jalen Bridges (6-7, 210 lbs., RFr.) and Taj Thweatt (6-7, 200 lbs., Fr.). Bridges worked out all last season with West Virginia but didn’t play in any games, as he was redshirted. Thweatt is a true freshman from Wildwood, New Jersey. While Matthews is the grizzled veteran of the group, Huggins has raved about Bridges from the moment he stepped on campus last fall, and Thweatt is regarded an exceptional athlete with outstanding potential.
The trio would seemingly provide WVU with excellent depth at small forward, but each must prove they can do perform on a consistent basis.
That includes Matthews, who much like his classmate McCabe, hit a bit of a sophomore slump this past season. As a freshman, the Tacoma, Washington, native averaged 5.4 points, but he caught fire late in the year. Following the dismissal of forwards Esa Ahmad and Wesley Harris in early February of 2019, Matthews was inserted into the starting lineup and really began to find his stride. He averaged 14.2 points in WVU’s final eight games in the season, exceeding 20 twice, including a 28-point, eight-rebound performance in leading West Virginia to an upset of No. 7 Texas Tech in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals.
Matthews began the 2019-20 campaign in similar fashion, reaching double figures in the scoring department in six of the Mountaineers’ first 10 games, averaging 10.6 points per game during that stretch.
But then things suddenly, inexplicably went south for Matthews. He averaged just 3.5 points per game over the next 20 outings, even though he kept his spot in WVU’s starting lineup. In particular his outside shot went awry. After making 15 of his 33 three-point attempts in the year’s first 10 games, he manage to hit just five of his 35 tries from beyond the arc during his 20-game slump.
Then came the 18-point bounce-back in the regular season finale, an upset of No. 4 Baylor in which he made two of his three three-point attempts. Because COVID-19 shutdown sports shortly thereafter, that performance was the last one for Matthews in the 2019-20 campaign, but it sent him into the offseason with a boost of confidence. On the year, he was fifth on the team in scoring, averaging 6.3 points per game to go along with 3.6 rebounds per game. He also shot 39.1 percent from the field, 30.1 percent from three and 62.2 percent from the foul line. In addition, he had 16 assists, 35 turnovers, six blocks and 13 steals.
While Matthews looks to improve upon his consistency this coming season, Bridges and Thweatt are looking for their first taste of college game action.
A four-star recruit rated as one of the top 100 prospects in the country in the class of 2019, Bridges was originally planning on attending a prep school following his illustrious high school career in which he led Fairmont Senior (W.Va.) High to four straight Class AA state championship game appearances, winning two of them.
At the last moment, though, Bridges decided that instead of attending Scotland (Pa.) Campus School for a year, he would enroll at WVU and redshirt. Thus the Fairmont native made the short move up the road to Morgantown and started his Mountaineer career.
Huggins often raved about Bridges’ practice performances during the redshirt year. That wasn’t a surprise, because Bridges was outstanding during his high school career, averaging 21.6 points and 6.7 rebounds his senior season for the 28-2 Polar Bears while shooting 62.1 percent from the floor and 50.6 percent from three-point range. At the end of the year, he earned the 2019 Bill Evans Award, given annually to the top high school player in the state of West Virginia.
The youngest of WVU’s three small forwards also has great promise. Thweatt led Wildwood Catholic High School (24-7) to the South Jersey Non-Public 8 championship this past season (the New Jersey state championships were cancelled because of COVID) and was named Atlantic City area player of the year in each the past two seasons. As a senior he averaged 17.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He finished his Wildwood Catholic career with 1,773 points and 1,029. Known best for his high-flying dunks, Thweatt also hit 28 three-pointers this past season.
Because the Mountaineers don’t have overwhelming depth at the post positions, Matthews, Bridge and Thweatt will have to be prepared to slide over and provide West Virginia with some quality minutes at the power forward spot as well. Considering all three are 6-foot-7 and very athletic, it shouldn’t be a huge issue for any of the three to fill that roll on a temporary basis.