Only a month ago, the West Virginia men’s basketball team was in the middle of a five-game losing streak and couldn’t wait for the season to end, but now, they want it to last as long as possible.
West Virginia missed out on the NCAA and NIT tournaments after finishing with 20 losses for only the second time in program history, but the Mountaineers sought the opportunity to continue their season by playing in the College Basketball Invitational.
“They wanted to keep playing,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “I asked [the players], they said they wanted to keep playing. I think it’s a great opportunity to get them some experience.”
Ever since the mid-season roster changes — the dismissals of Esa Ahmad and Wesley Harris, along with Beetle Bolden transferring—the Mountaineers have been lacking experience as they’ve been led by three freshman starters and only have two scholarships players who were in the rotation last season.
This lack of experience, however, hasn’t been a problem as the new starters have rejuvenated the team, leading to victories and even having Huggins call the current group of players an entirely new team from WVU just a month ago.
The new-look Mountaineers ended the five-game losing streak with a triple overtime win over TCU — to pick up WVU’s third conference win of the year — and then were able to win again a week later against Iowa State.
The two victories not only doubled the Mountaineers’ conference win total, but they sparked a run in the Big 12 Tournament as WVU was able to win two games and become the first 10-seed to ever reach the semifinals of the tournament.
“They’re playing well together,” Huggins said. “They like each other. We pass the ball a little better. We just gotta continue to improve. We gotta rebound the ball better, and we’ve gotta not turn it over so much. The rest of it will come.”
The CBI offers WVU the chance to improve and, although the Mountaineers may have to pay to play in it, participating allows WVU extra practices and games it otherwise wouldn’t have to develop its young nucleus of Jordan McCabe, Emmitt Matthews, Jr. and Derek Culver.
The trio flourished late in the season to win tournament games, warranting WVU to spend the money to continue their development in the CBI, not because it will help the team’s win total this season, but because it will help next season and in the years to come.
There will likely be a lack of veteran leadership on the team again next season, but the experience gained by WVU’s current freshmen will help in 2019-20 when there is a another batch of newcomers, which will include at least three new players, even without more attrition from this season’s squad.
The 2019-20 season starts now for West Virginia with the experience the young group of players will gain in the CBI, but the Mountaineers are still focused on finishing this season strong with hopes of advancing through the CBI and eventually winning it.
“We still got a chance to win some games and be champions. It doesn’t matter what tournament it is,” junior guard Jermaine Haley said. “I know guys didn’t want to just end the season like that and go home and just be working out and stuff. They’d rather be here with each other.”