MORGANTOWN — It would seem Josh Eilert and the WVU men’s basketball program aren’t just caught in a storm these days — it may be more like a monsoon.
As one negative incident has slammed into another, it’s not lost on Eilert that the deck has been stacked against him.
For some, it would seem like waving a white flag toward the basketball gods and begging for mercy would seem like a good idea.
Eilert doesn’t quite see it that way.
“We’ve had challenges,” he begins in stating the obvious. “But, we’re here. We’re excited. We might be a little bit shorthanded, but we’ve got guys I can count on and guys I can go to bat with.”
When decades have passed and this particular season is looked back on, it may be decided that few other men’s college basketball teams in the country had to face the amount of adversity this WVU team has endured.
It lost a Hall-of-Fame coach in Bob Huggins to a controversial resignation after a national embarrassment. It lost two, maybe three potential starters to the transfer portal following Huggins’ resignation.
Senior guard Jose Perez was then dismissed after violating team rules.
The NCAA declared guard RaeQuan Battle ineligible this season, a decision that is currently being appealed.
Senior forward Akok Akok collapsed and was rushed to the hospital last week during an exhibition game.
Eilert said Thursday Akok’s status for the season is still to be determined, but he definitely won’t play Monday, when the Mountaineers host Missouri State to open the season.
Expected starting point guard Kerr Kriisa also won’t be on the floor. The Arizona transfer is serving a nine-game suspension for accepting improper benefits. That suspension was announced Tuesday.
“We kind of feel like we have our backs against a wall. We’re going to fight and we’re going to compete,” Eilert continued. “That’s the only way we look at things. I told our team the other day, don’t take the victim mentality. We are not victims. We have an opportunity in front of us and we’re going to take full advantage of our opportunity.”
At the very least, it can’t be said the Mountaineers aren’t newsworthy.
Which is where everything stands heading into the season opener, a welcomed moment for a program likely yearning to get an escape from the drama and just play some meaningful basketball.
“There’s been multiple times that it’s been tough, but you just have to keep pushing through,” said Kobe Johnson, who will fill in at point guard for Kriisa during his absence. “It’s hard, but I’m just trying to stay focused.”
As for Akok’s medical situation, “Our medical staff continues to monitor him daily and they’ve done some additional testing,” Eilert said. “It’s certainly something we work with him every day to figure out what the next step is.”
Eilert also said he was never given a “clear picture” of what caused Akok’s collapse to the floor.
“I think (the doctors) are still reading some of those tests,” Eilert said. “I’ll leave that up to them to answer those questions.”
As for Kriisa, Eilert doubled down that the point guard accepted the improper benefits before he enrolled at WVU this summer.
“It didn’t happen on our watch,” he said.
The University of Arizona came out with a statement on Wednesday saying its athletics department or coaches had “no involvement.”
The entire statement: “Upon learning of a potential NCAA issue with a former men’s basketball student-athlete after they left the University of Arizona, the athletics department worked collaboratively and transparently with the NCAA and West Virginia University in their review of the matter. The review confirmed there was no involvement from any Arizona Athletics staff members or coaches.
“As part of their evaluation, the NCAA determined that the University of Arizona’s compliance systems and education met or exceeded their standards and national best practices. The University of Arizona received no penalties or corrective actions as a result of the NCAA’s evaluation.”
WVU has said Kriisa has taken full responsibility for accepting the benefits. Eilert cited student privacy issues in not discussing what the illegal benefits actually were.
“I’m not worried about what Arizona does or says,” Eilert said. “I know there’s student privacy laws in terms of Kerr’s situation, so I won’t get into it. My message is we’re not a victim. We take responsibility for whatever that is that we need to take responsibility for, and we move forward.
“Kerr is going to help us in practice every day. It’s not like he can’t practice with us or travel with us or be around the team. We’re not hanging our head.”
As the Mountaineers’ situation currently stands, they will open the season with eight scholarship players, one walk-on, a mostly new coaching staff and their fingers tightly crossed.
Fingers crossed, as if to say, “Please don’t let anything else bad happen.”
“In the coaches meeting this morning, I said this is as low as it gets, I think, at this point,” Eilert said. “We still got a smile on our face. We’re still coming to work. Certainly, there are challenges, but within challenges and adversity come a lot of opportunities to learn and grow.
“Yeah, it looks like everything is going against us right now, but maybe the tide is going to start turning. Maybe things are going to start going our way. That’s the way we’re going to have to operate.”