Men's Basketball, WVU Sports

COLUMN: Is Josh Eilert the odd man out in WVU’s 2023 athletic success or are the Mountaineers on the upswing?

MORGANTOWN — The West Virginia men’s hoops team will board a bus Friday morning.

It won’t be headed for Cleveland, well, technically it will, but more to the point that bus will be headed for opportunity.

The year 2023 will close out, athletically speaking, with two basketball games Saturday.

The No. 25 WVU women’s team will travel to Kansas to open Big 12 play. Meanwhile, the WVU men are headed for the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse to take on powerful Ohio State.

So far, 2023 has been — pardon the corniness here — the year of the ’Eers.

A football team with no expectations and with a dead man walking as a head coach, just completed its first nine-win season since 2016.

Neal Brown’s seat is now rather cool and tastes like mayonnaise following WVU’s 30-10 victory against North Carolina in Wednesday’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl.

The men’s soccer team just had its best season, wrapping it all up in the College Cup. Dan Stratford is the coach of the year and his players have been named to numerous All-American teams.

The previously mentioned WVU women’s basketball team is nationally ranked for the first time since 2021. There are just 10 undefeated women’s teams remaining in the country and WVU is one of them.

In his first season as coach, Mark Kellogg is certainly making WVU athletic director Wren Baker look like a very smart man by pulling the trigger on that hire.

The WVU baseball team won a Big 12 title in 2023, not to mention it won 40 games for just the second time in school history.

And, oh by the way, the baseball team just happens to have one of the best players in the country in J.J. Wetherholt.

Everywhere WVU men’s basketball coach Josh Eilert looks, he sees success.

Except in the mirror.

“We’ve had our challenges certainly and we’re 5-7,” Eilert said during a Zoom call on Thursday. “That’s the facts, we’re 5-7.”

No one familiar with the Mountaineers’ story is blaming that record on Eilert for the simple fact WVU has undergone more drama in recent months than could be scripted in a soap opera.

Yet it’s hard on any coach, regardless of the situation, to sort of be the odd man out. As in everyone around you is winning the lottery, yet you’re still flat broke.

Would a win against the Buckeyes (10-2) change all of that? Probably not, but it would be a huge boost of confidence for a team that sure could use it right now.

“There are going to be a lot of people who write us off,” Eilert said. “I tell those guys all the time, ‘People are going to write you off, because of your resumé thus far.’ ”

That’s the opportunity that awaits the Mountaineers in Cleveland.

It’s a chance to show the college basketball world that the Mountaineers aren’t exactly who you think they are.

Rather they are a team on the upswing with an explosive scorer in RaeQuan Battle, a fancy passer in Kerr Kriisa and a solid wing man in Quinn Slazinski.

WVU hasn’t had much opportunity to put that all together, because it hasn’t had all of those pieces together. It’s most important piece — center Jesse Edwards — is still out with a fractured wrist and isn’t expected back until late January or early February.

“We haven’t 100 percent played what we’re capable of playing,” Eilert continued. “I think our best basketball is going to come here in the future. I think it’s going to start gelling sooner rather than later.”

If Eilert can pull it off, it adds a very sweet frosting to an already well-baked cake by WVU athletics. Otherwise, he simply picked the wrong time to have a bad season at WVU.

“Let’s continue to have that growth mind set,” he said. “Let’s continue to figure out how we get better each and every day. Our record, I don’t think in any way, proves who we are and what we’re capable of being.”