It’s a remake so complete it should air on HGTV right between “Love it or List it” and “Flip or Flop.”
The Mountaineer men’s basketball team dropped 10 players from last year’s roster (five transfers and five graduates) while adding nine newcomers.
Despite ¬– or maybe because of ¬– these personnel changes, WVU head coach Bob Huggins believes this year’s reshuffled roster will be better than the 2021-22 version, which ended 16-17.
“I think we’re going to play hard. I think we will play a lot harder than we did a year ago. I think we have more guys who can score too,” said the veteran coach, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame earlier this fall. “Once we internalize it in what we want to do, I think we’re going to be really good.
“I was satisfied with them,” said the coach in preparation. “You play hard. We have guys trying to lead. I have no complaints at this point.”
Dedication and attitude have always been hallmarks of the teams coached by Huggins.
In his 39 previous seasons as head coach, he suffered just five losing seasons. His teams made 25 NCAA tournament appearances, including two runs to the Final Four, four to the Elite Eight, and nine to the Sweet 16. However, in each of his losing seasons, like last year’s Huggins, he sometimes lacked hard play admits he can’t understand why some teams play with great effort and others don’t.
“I have no idea,” Huggins replied when asked why some teams play so hard. “I think a lot of that is culture, which is a problem when you start talking about transmissions from the portal. I think that’s a problem.
“Playing hard is a learned trait. Just like you have to learn to shoot, you have to learn to play hard because most of the time they think they are playing hard but they are not playing hard. We went through that last year. We didn’t play hard, not compared to before.”
As he said, effort is a learned trait, at least for some.
“When I came here, I didn’t think they played hard,” Huggins said, recalling his first year as WVU head coach in 2007-08 with a team that eventually finished 23-12 and a sprint to the Sweet 16 made , “but they got to the point where they were playing extremely hard. So we have to keep doing what we’re doing in terms of repetition, repetition, repetition.
“There were a lot of things last year,” he said of West Virginia’s losing record in 2021-22. “There were guys who were more with themselves than with our team. I think there were some guys who wanted to give up at the end.”
While the Mountaineers stumbled a 4-14 Big 12 record in ’21-’22, their coach felt they were actually not far from respectable.
“We could very easily have won two or three more games a year ago, should have won two or three more games,” Huggins noted. “If we had won two or three more games, we would have played in the NCAA tournament. It is really that easy. We had some people who weren’t involved. You also can’t throw it to the other team and let them score at the other end of the floor on a layup. We should have beat the state of Iowa. We just had to catch the ball, but it’s hard to catch it when someone throws it below your knees. There were several such games that we gave away. If we win those, we’re in the NCAA tournament and nobody’s saying what a bad year it was.”
To turn things around in 2022-23, WVU needs to improve on many facets
“We have to defend better. We were a terrible passing team last year too. Not bad, terrible,” Huggins said.
In fact, there aren’t many areas where West Virginia was good last season. Although last year’s senior guard Taz Sherman had a nice hit and finished second in the Big 12 with an average of 17.7 points per game, there was precious little consistency behind him. Sean McNeil, who moved to Ohio State, finished second on the team averaging 12.2 points per game, while Malik Curry finished third with 9.7 points.
While WVU had many offensive struggles in 2021/22, averaging 68.5 points per game, which earned them eighth place in the league, their shortcomings in other areas were even more pronounced. It was last in the Big 12 in scoring defense (68.97 points per game), last in field goal percent defense (44.6%), last in 3-point field goal Percent defense (32.4%), last in rebound margin (-3.65) and last in assist/turnover ratio (0.84).
For decades, Huggins’ Clubs have reveled in glass. So as he focuses on fixing last year’s problems, rebounding is an area he wants to improve immediately.
WVU added big men Jimmy Bell (6-10, 285 lbs., Jr.), Tre Mitchell (6-9, 225 lbs., Jr.), Pat Suemnick (6-8, 230 lbs., Soph.) and Mohamed added Wague (6-10, 225 lbs., Soph.) with the design that the Mountaineers can once again be a stunner on the boards.
“We’re going to be able to bounce it off a lot better,” Huggins claimed. “A year ago it was pretty much a shot and fall back on defence. We don’t have to now.
“With Jimmy on the inside just getting better and Mo just getting better, we can now make things right.
“Let’s think about what we had before,” Huggins continued. “Derek Culver got pretty much every rebound, so much so that people changed his position because he was so much better than them.
“Kevin Jones was fantastic. He was one of the great rebounders in the history of that program.
“There’s nothing to say a couple of these guys can’t develop into that,” continued the coach. “It’s going to take a lot of work, time in the weight room and other things, but they can do it. I think we can even it out with anyone in the country if we do our work as coaches to show them how to equalize. Shaun (Brown, WVU basketball strength coach) will do a great job in the weight room, that goes without saying.”
A total of 89% of West Virginia’s point production deviated last year, so Huggins must rebuild its offense from the ground up.
A trio of transfers in Emmitt Matthews (Washington), Erik Stevenson (South Carolina) and Tre Mitchell (Texas) will be counted on to carry much of that offensive load.
“Emmitt is much better, Erik shoots well and Tre really shoots,” said the WVU coach about the three transfers. “Seth (Wilson) and Kobe (Johnson) both shot it well, and Keedy (Johnson) shoots it a lot better than he does. I think our field shots can come from many places.”
Keedy Johnson, a 6-foot-3 fifth-year senior, is the only holdover from last year’s starting lineup after starting 30 games at point guard for West Virginia in 2021-22. Although his score was capped at times (5.3 ppg), he was second on the team in assists (1.7) and led the club in steals (1.6).
“We’re counting on Keedy to run the show,” Huggins noted. “I thought he had a good year last year, one of the few guys to have had a good year. He’s a great defender and he knows what’s going on. He helped the other guys.”
Alongside Keedy, WVU’s backcourt will have Stevenson, two up-and-coming sophomores in Seth Wilson and Kobe Johnson, who each saw intermittent opportunities last year, and Iowa transfer Joe Toussaint.
“Erik can take a few shots and Seth can make a few shots,” the coach said. “Kobe played really well. Offensively he played better than ever before.”
After 98 games with 41 career starts over his three seasons in Iowa, the 6-foot Toussaint provides WVU with another aggressive point guard who will be able to push the tempo.
“Joe gives us the opportunity to get other teams to chase them,” Huggins said. “If we bounce it back and bring it to Joe, he’s going to run past a whole bunch of people and have others on his heels.”
Up front, Matthews, who is returning to WVU after a year in Washington, and Mitchell will be in the spotlight most of the time.
“I’d prefer Emmitt to play mostly in threes,” Huggins said of the 6-foot-7 forward. “He was a four when he was here before. I would prefer to keep him at three.”
That would make Mitchell the logical force forward, although Huggins said the 6-foot-9, 225-pound Pittsburgh native is skilled enough to see action from three to five.
“Tre can play anywhere he wants to play,” Huggins noted.
In addition to rebounds, the WVU bigs are asked to provide improved central defense. Bell’s size should be a force in color, and Wague, a National Junior College Athletic Association first-team All-American, finished third nationally in blocked shots (2.9) and averaged 14.8 points and 11.9 Rebounds per game for Harcum (Pa.) College last year.
“Jimmy did a great job. He can’t block shots like Mo, but he’s bigger and stronger and he hits harder,” Huggins said of the inner pair.
“Mo has really good feet. He can step out and guard the perimeter, and he can also block shots. He can really walk too.
“Mo is a very good shot blocker but he is young. He’s only been playing (organized basketball) for two or three years. I think as his knowledge improves his game will improve dramatically.”
James Okonkwo, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound sophomore, has also progressed.
“James is really talented. He wants to do well, almost too much, so he magnifies every mistake,” said the coach. “If we can get him to do what he’s doing and not make his mistakes big, then he’s talented. He’s really good at ricocheting and blocking shots. He does both well.”
Freshmen Josiah Davis (6-3, 195 lbs., Fr) and Josiah Harris (6-7, 200 lbs., Fr.) and sophomores Jamel King (6-7, 215 lbs., Soph.) and Pat Suemnick (6-8, 230 lbs., Soph.) will also be vying for game time. That’s a lot of depth, but Huggins would rather have too much than too little.
“You can’t play 14, but it’s nice to have 14,” he explained. “When the game is faster you can play against more people, but when it’s a half-court game you can’t play as many. It depends on the game.
“It also depends on the team you play against. When you play against a zone some guys can take shots and they are better against a zone. Other guys are better against a man-to-man. A lot of it is about the changes that occur in a game, and those changes occur in every game.”
In the days of Press Virginia, the Mountaineers changed up to a dozen people. Huggins could use a court defense this year, but the two key ingredients to Press Virginia are gone.
“When we were really Press Virginia, we had the best shot blocker in the country (Sagaba Konate) and we had the best defender in the country (Jevon Carter),” he said. “We haven’t had that since. But we can do it, at least in parts.”
It’s a new-look Mountaineer team with a lot of unknowns. The pre-season poll of the Big 12 predicted a ninth place finish for Huggins’ crew.
“I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve been that low preseason in my entire career,” frowned the veteran coach. “I’m used to being at the top.
“The real proof will come as the season progresses.”