WVU Feels The CBI Can Be Helpful
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–It’s not the situation the Mountaineer men’s basketball team wanted to be in, but now that they are playing in the Collegiate Basketball Invitational (CBI), they are determined to make the most of it.
Having earned berths in the NCAA Tournament the previous four years, with three of those trips reaching the Sweet 16, a 14-20 record was not what WVU head coach Bob Huggins envision for the 2018-19 campaign.
West Virginia has shown improvement in recent week, winning four of its past seven games, including a couple upsets in the first two rounds of the Big 12 Tournament. Even before those wins over Oklahoma and Texas Tech, the Mountaineers had decided they wanted some postseason experience, which meant the CBI.
“I asked (the players) before we went to Kansas City (for the Big 12 tourney) what they wanted to do, and they all said they wanted to keep playing,” explained Huggins. “They wanted to play as many games as they can play. I think it’s a great opportunity to get them some experience.”
Huggins is one who always focuses first on victory and defeat, and that will still be his primary goal in the CBI. But he also realizes there are other benefits available in these additional games.
“I’d settle for winning,” said Huggins, who is 856-358 in his college coaching career. “But we are starting to play well together. They like each other. We’re passing the ball a little better. We just have to continue to improve. We have to continue to run our offense better, and we have to continue not turning it over so much. The rest of it will come.
“I thought defensively we were much better,” he said of recent improvements. “I thought we competed a lot harder, and by and large, we ran pretty decent offense.”
As for West Virginia’s CBI opponent Thursday night, Grand Canyon brings a 20-13 record to Morgantown, having lost to New Mexico State, 89-57, in the WAC championship game this past Saturday.
The most recognizable name on the Antelope roster is that of their coach, former NBA star Dan Majerle, who 123-71 in his six seasons with GCU. Majerle has attracted talented players to the Phoenix school, including a pair of quality 6-foot-10 starters in junior Alessandro Lever and senior Michael Finke, who is a grad transfer from Illinois.
“They’re the biggest team we’ll have played; there’s no doubt about it,” stated Huggins.
GCU likes to shoot from the perimeter, where is has converted 248-of-748 three-point attempts.
“Offensively they do a lot of really good stuff. Dan Majerle is their coach and a former NBA guy, so they run a lot of NBA-type sets,” said WVU assistant coach Ron Everhart. “Defensively there are going to be a challenge for us. They play a pack-line (zone) a lot like Virginia, and with their size, that makes that defensive effective. They can be hard to score against.”
Grand Canyon junior guard Carlos Johnson, who is a transfer from Washington, is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 14.6 points per game, even though he usually comes off the bench. Then Lever and Finke are next on the GCU scoring list at 12.7 and 12.2 points per game respectively. Both Antelope big men are dangerous from three-point range, as Lever is tied for the team lead with 40 triples, while Finke isn’t far behind with 34.
“The way they spread you out, because their big guys can shoot the ball from the perimeter, they’re a real dangerous team,” stated Everhart, who is preparing West Virginia’s scouting report for this game.
“Their center (Lever) is a foreign kid from Italy who is versatile,” Everhart added. “He can score inside but he can also really shoot the three-ball. Our centers are going to have to get out and guard him. Derek (Culver) and Logan (Routt) and Drew (Gordon) are going to have to go out on the perimeter and contest his shots.
“Because their bigs can shoot it, they’re not really like anyone else we’ve played this year.”
West Virginia lost 13 of its 15 games from the first of January through late February. But when things looked their darkest following the dismissals of veteran forwards Esa Ahmad and Wes Harris, and the prolonged injuries to juniors Beetle Bolden and Sagaba Konate, the Mountaineers started to get things headed in the right direction.
“In the last month in terms of turning things around, it was because of a culture change,” explained WVU freshman point guard Jordan McCabe. “That means a lot of things were going in a different direction. We are trusting our coaches more, and we are trusting each other more. Our chemistry is better. There is more of a buy-in. I think that’s the biggest thing that separates us now from the beginning of the season. Everyone who is here now is locked into the same goal.”
This recent success has McCabe excited to extend the season.
“Coach Huggs has stressed to us, especially the younger guys who maybe didn’t play as much earlier in the season, that this is a chance to gain more experience and grow,” noted the rookie guard from Kaukauna, Wisconsin. “This gives us five more games – if everything goes right (and WVU wins the championship of the 16-team tourney) – to play together. It’s five more chances for us to show people what they have to look forward to.”
McCabe is certainly one of the Mountaineers who has shown dramatic improvement in the final portion of the season. After averaging 2.7 points per game through the first 25 contests, he averaged 14.6 in the final eight. His shooting improved greatly – 29.6 percent from three in the first 25 games and 40.3 percent in the most recent eight. Along with that, his assists (1.6 to 4.5) went up, and his turnovers (1 in every 11.5 minutes of playing time for the first 25, compared to 1 for every 14.6 minutes as of late) went down.
“Some people tried to overcomplicate things – ‘Oh, the speed of the game is different, or the guys are a lot bigger.’ But at the end of the day, a shooter needs some time to develop that confidence,” said McCabe. “I thought when I wasn’t getting much playing time early, I wasn’t shooting to my capability because there was a lack of confidence. You can’t rush the confidence that comes with experience; you can’t cheat that. As I got more and more playing time, I started to regain my confidence where I relaxed and started shooting like I’m capable.”
McCabe and his fellow young Mountaineers like Derek Culver, Emmitt Matthews, Jermaine Haley and Brandon Knapper all can use the further experience they’ll get in the postseason, even if this isn’t the postseason they desired.
“We’re all very excited about this (CBI),” said McCabe. “Obviously I wish we were headed to some regional for the NCAA Tournament, but that’s not the way it worked out. For the long run, this tournament can help us. We’re excited about getting a chance to go win it all.”