(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part conversation with Bob Huggins as he looks ahead to next year).
MORGANTOWN – Already coach Bob Huggins is looking ahead at his next basketball team, understanding that the most important thing he’s lost is time.
Think about it for moment. This year’s team went 21-10 and while the seniors it lost – Jermaine Haley, Chase Harler and Logan Routt – were important to that bounce back from the previous year’s collapse that produced only 15 wins and neither an NCAA nor NIT bid, they weren’t the key figures on the court.
The only other loss to date was Brandon Knapper, a guard who suffered through a very difficult season which finished with him making just 2 of his final 28 shots. He has entered the transfer portal.
In truth, WVU was one of the youngest teams in college basketball this season and two of its three best players were freshmen – Oscar Tshiebwe and Miles McBride – while the third was only a sophomore in Derek Culver.
Many have questioned whether Culver and Tshiebwe would leave WVU before next season.
Huggins has an answer for that.
“I think they are coming back. I think they are excited about the possibilities,” he said.
Neither is ready for the NBA at this time and, speaking of Huggins having lost time, they and their teammates may have benefitted more than any other team in the nation from playing in the NCAA Tournament.
They would have had practice time and high pressure game experience, something the team missed the previous year when its post-season play was limited to the Big 12 Tournament – where it did surprisingly well – and the low level CBT.
Huggins sees no real limits on what Tshiebwe and McBride can do next year or in the future.
“They both are surrounded by pretty good people. Deuce has a good family and Oscar, the guy he lives with, Sags lived with him. He’s a great guy. He’s raised six of those African kids. He knows what he’s doing,” Huggins said.
Having Tshiebwe and McBride back, however, gives Huggins an inside and outside presence that promised greatness this past season.
Huggins was asked if he ever had a pair of freshmen as good at WVU?
“Kevin and Devin,” he said.
He was, of course, referring to Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks.
If he’s right, that portends huge things for those two wound up being key members of the Mountaineers’ Final Four team as sophomores.
McBride, unheralded out of Cincinnati Moeller missed time in high school with a broken leg, debuted against Akron and scored 11 points, hit 3 of 5 field goals, 5 of 6 free throws, grabbed 6 rebounds and dished out 4 assists.
He was ready from the start, and finished the season as the man most likely to take over from the point late in a close game. He did, after scoring in double figures in 10 of 12 games including a pair of 20-point performances in mid-season, hit a wall as freshmen are wont to do.
Not surprisingly, his slump coincided with WVU’s slump during which they lost 6 of 7 games after looking like they might be a No. 2 seed and it’s not a stretch to say it was cause and affect either way you looked at it.
McBride finished averaging 9.5 points a game while splitting time with Jordan McCabe and Knapper, had 56 assists to 41 turnovers, showed to be a solid 3-point shooter and had a surprising 15 blocks, some spectacular.
Tshiebwe, as one might guess from someone who is inexperienced at basketball having spent his youth playing soccer, was inconsistent during the year but some research by play-by-play announcer Tony Caridi showed him to be one of the best freshmen big men to play at WVU since freshmen became eligible in 1973.
Tshiebwe’s 287 rebounds ranked 25th all-time in a single season by a WVU player and were the most ever by a WVU freshman. The previous record was held by Bob Huggins’ teammate, Warren Baker, who pulled down 279 during his freshman season.
Tshiebwe grabbed off 29 more than Derek Culver snared the previous year and were 49 more than Devin Williams had as a freshman and more than Kevin Jones collected in a single year until he was a senior.
Tshiebwe and Culver dominated the boards and when they bring their offensive game up to the same level their rebounding is at, they will overpower the Big 12 inside.
Another key to next season is for Huggins to figure out a way to get Culver to make his free throws. It isn’t that he can’t, for he’s shown an ability to shoot them well.
“If you go back and look at it, if Derek continues to make free throws like he did early in the year …. he made free throws for us down the stretch of games early in the year. Then, all of a sudden he couldn’t buy one,” Huggins said.
Culver opened the year hitting 8 of 8 against Akron and through the first seven games he had hit 32 of 39, which is 82.1%.
From that point on Culver made only 59 of 137 free throws, which is 43.1% – and in that group of games he had one game against Texas Tech where he made 14 of 16.
Take the Texas Tech game away and Culver shot just 37.2%, including two games of 3 of 10, 3 of 9, 2 of 8 and 0 of 6, including the final game upset of Baylor.
“With Derek, it’s a matter of we are going to have to make you do it,” Huggins said. “There are guys who you say ‘Come in and shoot 100 free throws,’ they come in and shoot 200. We may have to sit on Derek if he doesn’t do it.
“At the end he got a little better and I think he understood how important it is.”
WVU will also get a lift out of Fairmont Senior’s Jalen Bridges shedding his redshirt and beginning to play, a bigger, stronger and better version of the kid who felt it was best to sit out a year.
“If this year is any indication, he’s going to be a really good perimeter shooter for us,” Huggins said.
Huggins sees him an off-guard, which could replace Haley, although Huggins did admit he doesn’t have as many ball skills as Haley does, the senior often moving into the point with McBride at a shooting guard.
Huggins is also looking forward to bringing in three signed recruits next year, 6-10 Isaiah Cottrell from Las Vegas who attended Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, Taj Thweatt, a 6-7 forward from Wildwood, N.J., out of Wildwood Catholic and 6-3 guard Kedrian Johnson out of Dallas, Texas, who led the country in steals with 3.7 per game and was fifth in the country in scoring with 25.6 points a game.
— Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel