MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The journey back to the NCAA Tournament officially begins Tuesday for WVU men’s basketball.
Bob Huggins and his new-look Mountaineers will tip off a new season at 7 p.m. against Oakland. WVU is 2-0 all-time against Oakland, as well as 102-10 in home openers.
Here are four storylines to follow as the new season tips off:
Excitement and energy
WVU’s promising 2020-21 season ended a bit earlier than anticipated. The Mountaineers lost to underdog Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament, falling a win shy of reaching the Sweet 16.
Sophomore forward Jalen Bridges said that loss has weighed on him — and some of his teammates — throughout the offseason. That’s why he’s excited to get back to business.
“I honestly can’t wait,” Bridges said Tuesday. “I’m super excited to finally get out there and be in the real thing. Even though we played Akron, that didn’t count. It’s always a little different when it actually does count, and it’s been a long time since that loss to Syracuse. It’s time to take it out on some folks.”
Bridges said that loss to the Orange taught him some valuable lessons. It was his first trip to the NCAA Tournament, and now he knows what it takes to make a run.
“If we guard how we should guard, if we rebound the ball and if we can make open shots, I feel like the sky’s the limit,” Bridges said. “Once guys buy in completely, this is gonna be a scary team to play in March.”
Can WVU play defense?
Guarding appears to be a point of contention for this WVU team.
While many of Huggins’ past squads have been known for their defense, the head coach has already expressed concerns about the way his team will defend this season.
The Mountaineers were lackluster in their charity exhibition with Akron, even though they won the contest by 15 points. They were outrebounded by their opponent and made just 10 field goals in the second half.
Since then, Bridges said the emphasis in practice has been placed on two things: transition defense and rebounding.
“They feel like we weren’t really getting back very well in transition, finding a man,” Bridges said. “They were getting a lot of open shots in transition.”
He added: “We’ve been doing a lot of box-out drills, two-on-two, five-on-five, and just kind of letting guys learn the technique of actually boxing out, and it’s helped a lot.”
Will a big man emerge?
West Virginia’s transfer forward Pauly Paulicap explained the origin of his unique name Monday. He’s set to make his regular season debut in gold and blue against Oakland, and he seems to have impressed his head coach.
“He’s getting better and better,” Huggins said. “He’s starting to rebound the ball better, particularly at the offensive end. Of our bigs, he’s the best low post scorer we have.”
The last bit of that Huggins quote might be the most important thing Paulicap can provide the Mountaineers this season — Huggins said his team needs low post scoring “bad.”
Of course, Tuesday’s tilt in Morgantown will mark West Virginia’s first regular season game since former All-Big 12 forward Derek Culver elected to forgo his senior season and pursue pro basketball. Culver, who was recently waived by the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the G-League, led WVU in rebounding last season (9.4 rpg) and finished second on the roster in scoring (14.3 ppg).
Overcoming the loss of that production is likely the biggest challenge this WVU squad will face. Paulicap its one of two new big men on the squad, along with fellow transfer Dimon Carrigan, who played 17 minutes against Akron as a substitute. Paulicap saw just five minutes of action, but could see more playing time in the opener.
It’s unlikely that WVU will find its answer for post production after just one game, but Huggins may rotate players to see what sticks.
Who will run the offense?
Tuesday’s game will also mark West Virginia’s first in the post-Miles McBride era. The all-conference guard became an NBA Draft pick last summer after leading the Mountaineers in scoring.
McBride ran the point for WVU last season, providing steady and consistent play at that position. Another Mountaineer will have to step into that role this season — even though Huggins has indicated that the offense could function without a true point guard.
Kedrian Johnson started for WVU in the charity exhibition and played 19 minutes. Huggins confirmed that Johnson is available for Tuesday’s tilt, even though he was injured during the exhibition.
Johnson split time with fellow guard Malik Curry, a transfer from Old Dominion. It’s likely that both players will play point guard at some point during the Oakland game.
In general, it’ll be interesting to see how the Mountaineers run their offense in this game and throughout the season. It’s possible that veterans Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil could play the point at times, something they haven’t been asked to do often in their WVU careers. Freshman Kobe Johnson could also contribute in that role. He played 23 minutes and scored eight points against the Zips.
How to watch
WVU vs. Oakland will tip off at 7 p.m. and stream live on Big 12 Now on ESPN+. As of now, eight of West Virginia’s games this season are scheduled to air on the streaming service.
ESPN+ subscriptions are priced at $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year.