West Virginia Climbing Mountains
Updated: Mar 24
Last week, I broke down my Way-Too-Early Final Four picks, based on their play thus far this season. One of my four picks was Florida State University. FSU won a close one in OT against Wake Forest at home on Saturday and needed their go to guy, Scottie Barnes, to tie it up to send it to OT. They smacked #7 UVA by 20 on Monday. FSU is for real. I’ve been a huge believer in FSU all season, so I’m excited to watch them the rest of the way. Another bold prediction I made was picking the Johnnies as my 4th final four selection. St John’s is starting to look like a huge reach but that’s cool. The blog was “way too early” for a reason. Some of the other teams I briefly mentioned didn’t get the love they deserve and others don’t have a full explanation for why I’m putting the breaks on them.
Just to preface this, I’ve been pretty bearish on WVU over the years. They've been a defense-only team with little scoring and no go to guy. They have all of that now so let's get into it.
The West Virginia Mountaineers are looking more and more like a true contender as each week has progressed. To be fair, I wasn’t too high on them at the beginning of this season, even though I gave them credit for being a much better offensive team than the “Press Virginia” teams Bob Huggins has coached in the past. With those Press Virginia teams, Javon Carter, the OG bald head, was a two time Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, who led the defensive attack where they would quite literally press their opponents to death. Carter would be guarding 94 feet and their typical scheme was a 2-2-1 press with a 1-2-1-1 (diamond press) mixed in. The goal and end result of the presses was turning over their opponents at a high clip and not allowing them to get into offensive half court sets with ease. Their offense was not too existent and was mainly a result of the defense causing turnovers that led to easy buckets.
Quitters Never Win
The team had one of the oddest wrinkles as far as roster switch-ups during a season. As crazy as it sounds, they have been light years better since Oscar Tshiebwe left the team and transferred to Kentucky. The real reason he left has to be beef with Huggins over his role on the team and not getting enough shine with Derek Culver also manning the paint. You’d think they’d be missing a guy who was All-Big 12 Second Team last season and was also starting this season. You’d be dead wrong. They were playing with an old school "twin towers" type lineup with Tshiebwe and Culver.
Their offense is now more of a 1-in, 4-out lineup; eerily resembling the Orlando Magic teams with Dwight Howard about a decade ago. Culver is a physical beast and is averaging 15 points, 10 boards and 1 block per game on 50% shooting. You’d like to see a big man shoot a bit better from the field since most of his shots come in the paint, but watch the games and you’ll see the double and triple teams coming his way. Tshiebwe taking the cowardly way out to get to the league has done wonders for this team because it opens the paint for Culver and adds another shooter/playmaker onto the floor depending on the lineup. The starting lineup turnover hasn't ended after Tshiebwe’s departure. Previous junior starting 2 guard, Sean McNeil, has been sent to the bench for Taz Sherman, who has been averaging 15 points per game. McNeil averages 16.8 points per game, and him moving to the bench just showcases their depth and adds more shot creation, defense, and playmaking to the starting lineup with the inclusion of Sherman. Emmitt Matthews Jr and Jalen Bridges are more than capable starters averaging 7 and 5 points per game respectively, but the real impact comes with their true star and point God. Miles “Deuce” McBride is making a name for himself on a national stage with his increased role and production during his second season in the mountains of West Virginia. He's averaging a bit over 17 points per game this season and is the Mountaineers go-to guy, main shot-maker, and creator in crunch time. Just look at the clip of him winning the game in their first matchup with Top 10-ranked Texas Tech.
Since then, they have handled Kansas and Texas Tech again with ease. Playing in the Big 12 forces them to have one of the toughest schedules in the country. The Big 12 is the best conference in college basketball. All of their losses have been tough, close games against Gonzaga, Texas, Oklahoma twice, Florida in the Big 12-ACC Challenge, and Kansas while they were ranked. If Duke played this schedule, Coach K would have cancelled the season a month ago. Their wins include VCU (tops of the A-10), Western Kentucky (tops of the C-USA), Richmond (who was considered to be a frontrunner to win the A-10 at the time), Oklahoma State (who has the number one prospect overall in Cade Cunningham), Texas Tech twice and Kansas once. They have a tough remaining schedule, including games against #12 Texas on Saturday, TCU who is a bubble team, and #2 Baylor with a date TBD due to a COVID shutdown of the Bears program.
#13 ranked WVU plays in the toughest conference in the country with conference members being ranked in the Top 25 including, #2 Baylor, #9 Oklahoma, #12 Texas, #15 Texas Tech, #23 Kansas and Oklahoma State who has been ranked as high as #23. Their style of play, as I have mentioned before, is different from the previous “Press Virginia” teams that Hall-of-Fame head coach Bob Huggins has coached. They still have the defense, but have added the offense and a go-to offensive weapon in Deuce McBride. That being said, their real tests will come in their matchups with Texas and Baylor in the regular season, as well as their run in the Big 12 Conference Tournament. Part of the appeal of WVU is that in the NCAA Tourney, they won’t have to play a sleight as good as their schedule during the regular season. They will be a 4 seed at worst, so they won’t play a Top-25 team until at least the Sweet 16, or most likely the Elite 8.
When looking at teams to make a deep run in March Madness, you need to target teams with a great defense, an offense with an above-average tempo, and a shot maker to close out games. Yes, it is college basketball so the unexpected is expected to happen in the tournament, but WVU checks all of those boxes. The defense is still stellar, their offense has the post player and shooters to make most Division 1 coaches envy them, and Deuce to close out tight games. What more can you ask for? I’m not saying they will win it all, or make it to the Final Four, otherwise I would have included them in my Way-too-Early Final Four blog. WVU is still a really strong team who the field prays they won't face at any point in March. That being said, I’m writing this blog because they have the recipe to make a run.