MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Welcome back to the 2020-21 season, where No. 14 West Virginia (9-4, 2-3 Big 12) was forced to take off the past 12 days and three games were postponed after the Mountaineers had some positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing within its program. It has created a ton of uncertainty, WVU head coach Bob Huggins said, including how many players he will have available today against Kansas State (5-10, 1-6), as well as what type of condition his returning players will be in after quarantining for 10 days.
“I don’t know. I don’t have any idea until we actually go through it,” Huggins said. “I honestly have no idea.”
As the Mountaineers re-enter the season, we bring up the one aspect that could turn into something bigger down the road: The health of junior forward Derek Culver.
We do not know at the moment if he was one of the players who tested positive for the coronavirus or was out due to contact tracing, but what we do know is the 6-foot-10, 255-pounder is taking a beating while playing around the basket and battling for his seven double-doubles he’s recorded this season.
“I’ve talked to Derek a couple of times a day,” Huggins said. “Derek’s not going to cry and spill out to me about how bad he hurts. He didn’t do that when he was hurt, and he was hurt.”
It’s no fun trying to fight through double teams. It’s even less fun when you also have to fight through defenders latching on to you to keep you grounded or constantly having an elbow in your back or a knee up against your rump. In the past, Culver has said he likes the physical nature of the game. Heading into his sophomore season, when the NCAA began to make a concerted effort to clean up play around the basket, Culver said he appreciated the more physical style of play.
Make no mistake, though, it does take a toll.
“The kid couldn’t bend over,” Huggins said. “It’s a shame that he has to go through the physicality that he goes through game in and game out. He spent the week before our last game in a doctor’s office. We were trying to get him to where he could bend over.”
This is not exactly something new coming from Huggins. He’s mentioned this before when Culver was a freshman and even some as a sophomore, when WVU also had the services of big man Oscar Tshiebwe, who is now enrolled at Kentucky, which puts even more of the opposition’s emphasis back on Culver.
You will not hear these words from Culver himself. Never once has he complained about physical play. He’s never called out officiating. He’s never called out teammates publicly for not getting him some help inside. Privately, Huggins said Culver is also unlikely to raise concerns.
“Derek doesn’t complain,” Huggins said. “It’s hard to get any information from him.”
And it’s been hard to get much player info heading into today’s game. We do not know officially how many players WVU will have available today or if Culver will be one of them. Here’s what we do know:
TV: ESPN2 (Comcast 36, HD 851; DirecTV 209; DISH 143) for the 4 p.m. tip-off. BETTING LINE: West Virginia is an 11-point favorite.
WHAT DOES BOB HUGGINS HAVE TO SAY?
Outside of COVID-19 issues, what concerns the coach the most moving forward is what the Mountaineers’ remaining schedule will look like. Of the three games that were postponed, only the Baylor game has been rescheduled. That game now sets up a rare back-to-back against the No. 2 Bears on Feb. 15 (home) and Feb. 18 (at Waco, Tex.) in a stretch that also includes a home game against Oklahoma on Feb. 13. That’s three games in five days.
“It scares me that (the Big 12) don’t really have a schedule,” Huggins said. “We’ve got that three games in five days. What do we got after that? I don’t know. I don’t think they know. I’m sure it’s because they don’t know who’s going to be laid up next, which team is not going to be able to play. Those are the things that scare me.”
Home games against TCU and Oklahoma State must also be made up, but Huggins also hinted that it’s possible all these games may not get played due to teams being unavailable at certain times due to COVID-19 protocols.
“The problem is, it’s not equal,” he said. “When you sit down and look at your conference schedule, obviously you’d like to change a couple of things, but everybody does the same thing. Everybody plays nine at home, nine on the road. I don’t know if that’s the case now. There are going to be people playing more home games than away games. There are going to be people who haven’t played as many games as other people have played. And I haven’t seen or heard yet of anybody playing three games in five days. I can deal with whatever it is that’s tangible. The unknown scares me half to death.”
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS
WEST VIRGINIA (9-4, 2-3 Big 12)
F–Derek Culver, 6-10, jr., 13.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg
F–Jalen Bridges, 6-7, fr., 3.3 ppg, 1.7 rpg
F–Emmitt Matthews Jr., 6-7, jr., 8.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg
G–Deuce McBride, 6-2, soph., 15.1 ppg, 4.0 apg
G–Sean McNeil, 6-3, jr., 10.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg
KANSAS STATE (5-10, 1-6 Big 12)
F–Davion Bradford, 7-0, fr., 6.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg
G–Selton Miguel, 6-4, fr., 8.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg
G–Rudi Williams, 6-3, jr., 6.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg
G–DaJuan Gordon, 6-4, soph., 10.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg
G–Mike McGuirl, 6-2, sr., 11.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg
Traditionally any game WVU plays at Bramlage Coliseum ends up being physical, low-scoring and pretty much a foul-fest. So much is unknown heading into the game. We don’t know how many players WVU will have. Kansas State will likely be without star freshman Nijel Pack, who has sat out the last three games dealing with COVID-19 issues. WVU hasn’t played since Jan. 9, so there could be a lot of rust. If I have to make a pick, I’d say that 11 points is a lot considering all the things we don’t know. WVU wins, but does not cover, 65-60.
Justin’s season picks against the spread: 4-6-1.