WVU, Huggins Ready For Friday’s Opener
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–The Mountaineer redemption tour starts in earnest Friday night at 7 p.m. when Akron comes to the WVU Coliseum for the 2019-20 men’s basketball season opener.
The game is slated for a 7 p.m. tip and will be televised by AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh. For those outside the AT&T Sportsnet footprint, a live stream of the broadcast will be available at WVUsports.com.
West Virginia is looking to rebound after a 15-21 mark last year, which included the most losses in school history. It was just the fourth time in Bob Huggins’ 37 years as a head coach that his team suffered through a losing season.
Of Huggins’ time on the bench, five of those seasons (1985-89) came when he was the head coach at Akron, leading the Zips to a 97-46 record during that time. He was inducted into the Akron Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.
Now Huggs’ old team comes to Morgantown to meet his current one. The Mountaineers and Zips have only met four times previously with the series being evenly split 2-2. WVU won meetings in 1980 (108-74) and 2011 (77-56), both in the Coliseum, while Akron won home contests in 1937 (34-32) and 1905 (31-25).
Akron was 17-16 last season and is picked to finish fifth in the six-team East Division of the Mid-American Conference this year.
“The reality is we’re still really young,” said Huggins of his club. Huggins is the eighth winningest all-time Division I men’s college basketball coach in history with a record of 860-362. “We don’t have but a few seniors, and the rest of them are first- or second-year players. As we continue to play, we ought to get better.”
West Virginia is 94-16 all-time in season opener and 100-10 in home openers, though it did drop last year’s opener at the Coliseum, falling to Buffalo 84-82 in overtime.
Though Buffalo turned out to be a very good (32-4), certainly WVU’s struggles in the first game of 2018-19 were a warning of what was to come.
As Huggins said, West Virginia still has plenty of inexperience, as seniors Chase Harler and Logan Routt are the only Mountaineers to see game action for more than one season at WVU. But others, like sophomores Emmitt Matthews, Derek Culver, Jordan McCabe and Brandon Knapper, as well as senior Jermaine Haley, now have one full season at West Virginia under their belts and feel better prepared for things the second time around.
“We should be firing on all cylinders early and coming out in the second half with the same intensity we had in the first,” said Halley, a 6-foot-7 guard who averaged 16.3 points in the last 10 games of the 2018-19 season. “Last year we would get up on a team early and then get comfortable. That’s something you can’t do. You have to put teams away, and that’s something we need to execute better.
“As for me personally, I’m the same guy I was last year,” added the Canadian native from Vancouver, who missed WVU’s exhibition game last week against Duquesne with a back injury but proclaimed himself “100 percent” now. “I’m just a little more confident and comfortable, because I got to go through everything last year. I just want to do what I can to help us win games.”
Despite all of last year’s struggles, the Mountaineers did play better at the tail end of the season, winning five of their final nine games. Not only did Haley perform better down the stretch, but so too did McCabe, who averaged 13.5 points and 5.0 assists in his final 10 games.
“I’m still the same player I was last year, other than the fact that I feel more confident and relaxed,” said the 6-foot point guard from Kaukauna, Wisconsin. “I feel I have the ability to go out and effect the game in a positive way for us.
“I understand Coach Huggins’ expectations better now than I did last year, but they are really pretty simple – don’t turn the ball over and play good defense,” continued McCabe. “Everything else is icing on the cake. It’s nice to hit some shots too, but my job is to take care of the ball and come out with a win.”
As for Huggins, he’s been doing this for a long time. He’s entering his 42nd season as a college coach, his 38th as a head coach and his 13th at WVU.
He knows a lot of season lays beyond Friday’s opener.
“At this point in time, I don’t get too excited,” chuckled Huggins when asked about openers. “I just hope I don’t fall out again from the huddle (as he did when he suffered a heart spasm a few years ago). But openers are great for the guys, particularly the new guys. We’ve got people in the stands, and it’s a difference in playing in an empty gym and playing in front of 9,000 or 10,000 people.”
Notes – Huggins said the NCAA still has not provided a final ruling on the waiver appeal by current Mountaineer and former Arkansas transfer Gabe Osabouhien. Thus to this point, the 6-foot-7, 235-pound junior is not eligible to play this season, though that could change if/when the NCAA makes a decision.
• WVU’s game notes list its starters as: Emmitt Matthews, Oscar Tshiebwe, Derek Culver, Chase Harler and Jordan McCabe.