This isn’t how I expected the Mountaineers to start their season.
First they fall to Penn State by two, then to Buffalo in overtime. They finally got their first win at the Myrtle Beach Invitational only to lose to Western Kentucky the next day. Thank goodness they held off Saint Joseph’s and Valparaiso.
Tonight they face their second Metro Atlantic opponent, Rider, at the Coliseum. The Broncs are currently atop the MAAC rankings with a 2-1 record, only losing to the University of Central Florida – their toughest opponent thus far. Considering the Mountaineers have dominated the fluff games in recent history and beat Monmouth (the other MAAC team), this should be no cause for concern. But it is concerning, and it’s giving me a headache.
To be blunt, West Virginia should be 5-0 right now. Their first big opponent is Florida, set for Dec. 4 in the Jimmy V Classic in New York City. Although the Gators beat the Mountaineers in the 2016 Big 12/SEC Challenge, Florida shouldn’t be too difficult to top this year even if they lost by five points to Oklahoma last week. Last year, the Gators had a solid 21-13 record, ending with a loss to Texas Tech in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“But WVU beat both Oklahoma and Texas Tech in each meeting last year!”
But that’s the disconnect – they obviously aren’t the same team as last year. It was apparent throughout last season that when the Mountaineer’s lost Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles that they would be in a slump, but I never expected it to look like the last few weeks. It reminds me of 2012. What a doozy that was – 6-12 against conference opponents and 13-19 overall.
I don’t think this season will be a mirror image of that year, but it may be close. Esa Ahmad and Sagaba Konate have stepped up as leaders, but they aren’t Miles or Carter. So far they’ve been backed up by Beetle Bolden (when he’s playing) and Lamont West . The two combined for 43 points against Buffalo, and West’s career-high 27 points off the bench against Saint Joe’s was instrumental in the seven point victory. That energy will be needed throughout the rest of the year as long as Bolden isn’t held out for a “coaches’ decision” according to the Gazette-Mail.
So yes, I’m concerned. I can’t remember when West Virginia had this slow of a start, whether that’s from compartmentalizing that in the deep reaches of my memory or just because the Mountaineers haven’t muffed the opening stretch in a very long time.
Thus far, WVU is shooting 44.6 percent from the field, snagging 40.6 rebounds per game and stealing the ball 5.6 times per game. They’re turning it over 15.6 times per game, while only forcing 12.6 turnovers. In 2017 they shot 43.6 percent and averaged 8.1 steals, 11.4 turnovers and 37.8 rebounds per game. They led opponents in the latter three, forcing 16.5 turnovers and rebounding it roughly four (3.6) more times per game. Opponents only tallied 5.5 steals per game.
That isn’t great out of the gate. In the aforementioned Gazette-Mail article, Huggins is quoted saying, “One, we don’t have the foot speed that we’ve had. Secondly, we’re really poor fundamentally. Our footwork is atrocious.”
This could just be growing pains. Miscommunication is obvious in some games, while in others they’re simply outplayed by lesser opponents. Dec. 4 is going to be the first time this season that the Mountaineers will have a real chance to make a statement and solidify themselves as the program they’ve been working to become since Huggins came back to Morgantown. The last time the Mountaineers played in the Jimmy V Classic they lost to No. 10 Virginia 54-70. The next real opponent they face after the Gators is Texas Tech on Jan. 2.