Everyone in the West Virginia basketball program seems to have a chip on their shoulder this year. From Bob Huggins to his newcomers, everyone seems to have something to prove.
This week, the Mountaineers have their first chance to showcase their progress nationally at the Phil Knight Legacy tournament in Portland, Oregon. West Virginia meets No. 24 Purdue in the first round, with the winner most likely playing No. 6 Gonzaga. On the other side of the field, No. 8 Duke, Florida and Xavier are other big opponents in the tournament.
“We’re going to try to go to Portland for three games and hopefully get back in the top five in the country,” WVU G Erik Stevenson said last Friday.
Stevenson was the first piece to show how the WVU coaching staff tried to fix what happened last year. Stevenson, who leads WVU with 14.0 points per game, was the team’s most vocal leader. Something last year’s team didn’t really have. After Stevenson signed in April, so did his childhood friend Emmitt Matthews. Then came Joe Toussaint and Tre Mitchell. All four newcomers to the transfer portal lead the team in all ball phases.
Huggins recently admitted he likes the transfer portal more than he thought. Of course, Huggins still got his junior college additions from Mohamed Wague, Jimmy Bell and Patrick Suemnick.
Mix in the great Portal supplements with the JUCO supplements and you have a recipe for a different year from last year’s Big 12 finish.
West Virginia has received no love from outsiders up to this point. Even for ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi to question where the WVU program was headed.
“I wonder if we’re seeing a lasting decline in West Virginia. The Mountaineers equaled their worst Big 12 record of the Bob Huggins era, and there’s no apparent recovery on the horizon,” Lunardi wrote in a conference preview earlier this month. “WVU has never lost consecutive seasons under Huggins. But it could happen, and there could be awkward whispers in Morgantown.”
In the first four games of the season there is nothing for WVU fans to complain about. The team has bought in, the offense surprisingly shoots 50 percent and the front court looks a lot better. The Mountaineers blew out Pitt on the road in their second game together. Even in the Kaufspiele, the WVU still has to take its foot off the gas and cross to three more victories. Last year’s roster would have hobbled away with wins over the low majors.
Stevenson can speak for the whole team and say they haven’t had a real challenge yet. How will West Virginia react if they get punched in the mouth?
“You know we didn’t get hit on the mouth at all. We haven’t been knocked out. We beat pretty much everything,” Stevenson said. “We’ll play against three really good opponents next week. These teams are good and they will go for runs. We need to keep those runs going and fight back alone.
West Virginia has to take game after game, but if they keep shooting well and using their depth as an advantage, they have a chance to play in the PK85 field. This will be WVU’s first chance to showcase their improved lineup nationwide.
“I think our boys are looking forward to it. It tells us where we are and what we need to improve on,” said Huggins.
West Virginia and Purdue tie the knot in the first round of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament in Portland at 10 p.m., with ESPN2 providing coverage of the game.
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