MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Welcome to Game 1 AO (After Oscar) for the No. 9 West Virginia men’s basketball team, where the Mountaineers (8-2, 1-1 Big 12) landed in Norman, Okla. Friday night without forward Oscar Tshiebwe, who stepped away from the team and will not return.
Getting right into it, WVU head coach Bob Huggins said all of the right things in his Zoom conference with the media on Friday, which wasn’t unexpected. After all, you didn’t expect Huggins to come out and say, “Well, we’re all screwed now,” did you?
Tshiebwe’s stepping away from the team instantly draws some comparisons to the Sagaba Konate situation during the 2018-19 season. Both players came to WVU from Kennedy Catholic (Pa.) High School. They were both big and athletic and became fan favorites, because fans believed they saw potential in both players down the road.
And both left WVU mysteriously. Konate, who was bothered by a knee injury throughout that season, played in just enough games to set the school’s career record for blocked shots and then sat out the rest of the season (to be fair, Konate did remain with the team) before entering his name into the 2019 NBA Draft, where he wasn’t picked. Tshiebwe came in as the only second McDonald’s All-American to sign with the school as a freshman. Huggins had to beat out the likes of Kentucky’s John Calipari on the recruiting trail to sign Tshiebwe, who finishes his WVU career averaging 10.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game in 41 career starts.
We use the word “mysteriously,” because it is believed outside forces played a role in both players’ decisions. Konate was being advised by family members to sit out and it’s possible Tshiebwe had some people in his ear telling him he may be better off at another school or in another situation. As of this writing, Tshiebwe’s name has not yet entered the NCAA’s transfer portal and any thoughts on what he is thinking is simply just speculation.
If he were to transfer, it would certainly create an interesting scenario on the NCAA’s decision to allow blanket waivers for immediate eligibility this season. I’m sure there may be a few obstacles and possibly even challenges on WVU’s part to allow immediate eligibility, but again,that is all speculation and no one at WVU has made the comment that Tshiebwe will be at another school in the near future.
So, it is time to move on. How do the Mountaineers do that? Well, let’s have a serious discussion here. One of the first things Huggins said is Tshiebwe’s move will create more room for forward Derek Culver to operate. From a strategic standpoint, Huggins liked that high-low play with Tshiebwe and Culver as a way to get them a scoring opportunity near the rim. That’s likely gone now, especially since freshman forward Isaiah Cottrell is also out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. You can still do it with Gabe Osabuohien, but it may be unlikely that Osabuohien and Culver will be on the floor much at the same time.
The worry here is now teams will be more likely to revert back to double and triple teaming Culver, much like they did when Culver was a freshman and Tshiebwe was still in high school. That does have to open the door for someone on the WVU roster to make a move. Maybe it’s Emmitt Matthews Jr., who could suddenly see a jump in production. Maybe Deuce McBride, Sean McNeil and Taz Sherman start throwing up more shots.
Or maybe freshman forward Jalen Bridges sort of nestles into a new role and makes the most of it. The Fairmont native drew rave reviews from Huggins for his play in practices last season while redshirting.
“We can do a lot of things,” Huggins said. “I think it depends on the opposition. I think it depends on what we’re trying to get. For instance, you can put (Bridges) at the power forward spot. A year ago, J.B., at the end of the year, was rebounding the ball better than anybody other than Derek in practice. And he made shots. He’s struggled a little bit to make shots to this point, but I feel 100% confident that he’s a guy who is going to be able to step out there and make shots and spread the floor.”
Lost in all of this is the Mountaineers are facing Oklahoma (5-2, 1-1) today on the road (WVU has lost two in a row at the Lloyd Noble Center) and the Sooners offer a match-up nightmare in power forward Brady Manek, who is 6-foot-9, but shoots 3-pointers like a guard. O.U. point guard Austin Reaves is another outside threat and the Sooners are coming off a season sweep of WVU from last season.
Lots of interesting things to watch today. Here’s what you need to know:
TV: ESPN2 (Comcast 36, HD 851; DirecTV 209; DISH 143) for the 4 p.m. tip-off. BETTING LINE: Oklahoma is favored by two points.
WHAT DOES BOB HUGGINS HAVE TO SAY?
Knowing he was about to face a barrage of question about Tshiebwe, Huggins was quick to throw up a positive front.
“What do we do moving forward? We’re going to win more games,” he said. “I think this gives us an opportunity to be able to spread the floor a little bit more. Guys like J.B. can come in and spread the floor and make shots. It will give Derek a lot more room to work with down there.”
Huggins’ No. 1 priority is to his players and he had to make them believe that their world did not just come to an end with Tshiebwe’s departure. Three guys on the roster — Culver, Matthews and Jordan McCabe — sort of went through this as freshmen with the Konate situation. Also, Huggins still has a season to worry about, one that still has the Mountaineers projected to make the NCAA tournament. Huggins still sees the bigger picture through the current negativity and it’s his job to get his players on that same page.
“With all due respect, I don’t want to talk about Oscar,” Huggins said. “I want to talk about our team. I want to talk about the guys who are here and who have worked their tails off all summer long, continued to work when we didn’t know if we were going to play or not. Those guys deserve all the credit in the world and I’m sure they’re champing at the bit to get an opportunity to show what they can do.”
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS
WEST VIRGINIA (8-2, 1-1 Big 12)
F–Derek Culver, 6-10, jr., 14.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg
F–Jalen Bridges, 6-7, fr., 1.4 ppg, 1.2 rpg
F–Emmitt Matthews Jr., 6-7, jr., 7.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg
G–Deuce McBride, 6-2, soph., 14.8 ppg, 4.1 apg
G–Sean McNeil, 6-3, jr., 10.8 ppg, 1.9 rpg
OKLAHOMA (5-2, 1-1)
F–Brady Manek, 6-9, sr., 14.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg
F–Kur Kuath, 6-10, sr., 7.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg
G–Alondes Williams, 6-5, sr., 7.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg
G–Austin Reaves, 6-5, sr., 13.2 ppg, 5.4 apg
G–De’Vion Harmon, 6-2, soph., 11.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg
West Virginia’s last two trips to the Lloyd Noble Center has seen defeats by an average of 11 points per game. Oklahoma is senior-loaded and WVU is not. Oklahoma is third in the Big 12 in 3-pointers per game (8.3) and the Mountaineers are not exactly great at defending the three. With Tshiebwe, the Mountaineers still had a difficult match-up against Manek. Without Tshiebwe, WVU is extremely thin on its front line and has to keep its fingers crossed that Culver doesn’t get in foul trouble trying to guard Manek on the perimeter or risk putting a smaller player on Manek.
This isn’t to say the Mountaineers won’t eventually settle down and find a way to be successful without Tshiebwe, but it’s a lot to ask for it to happen in the first game, especially on the road. Oklahoma wins and covers, 78-71.
Justin’s season picks against the spread: 2-6-1.