Thursday was supposed to mark the beginning of the 2020 NCAA tournament.
But at a time that was supposed to be spent breaking down the matchups facing West Virginia in this year’s tourney, life has forced us to skip ahead one year.
There was certainly a chance that the Mountaineers would have reached the tournament’s second weekend this season, but it was not exactly a likelihood with West Virginia a probable 6- or even 7-seed in this year’s field.
As painful as it is to live without March Madness for the first time since 1938 — hopefully while avoiding the economic conditions of 1938 — there is actually reason for optimism when looking ahead at next year’s Mountaineers.
For teams like Dayton or Seton Hall, this year’s tournament marked their best shot at glory for a very long time. But West Virginia is well-stocked for potentially making some noise next season thanks to who should be returning.
Here are the key factors to next year’s success:
Culver and/or Tshiebwe’s return
No one on the roster can rebound like these two, which means replacing both would probably remove the Mountaineers from Final Four potential without massive improvements in other areas.
Neither Derek Culver nor Oscar Tshiebwe have indicated whether they will be returning to West Virginia or testing the NBA Draft waters. Given the current climate, that’s pretty understandable.
If one of them does go pro, the Mountaineers still have a very solid base to work with. And though this year showed at times there are challenges in playing both bigs at once, if both players come back West Virginia is a legitimate Big 12 title contender.
In a very early preseason projection, the advanced analytics site BartTorvik.com has West Virginia rated as the No. 9 team in the country next season — and that projection is operating under the premise that Tshiebwe is leaving.
Consistent point guard play
Junior college transfer Kedrian Johnson will be the most important newcomer on the roster — and may end up being the most important player, period.
Johnson averaged 25.6 points and 4.3 assists per game for Temple (Texas) Junior College this season. As Taz Sherman demonstrated this season, it may be February before we see a high-octane offensive Texas juco player come into his own.
But if Johnson is the real deal, it shores up one of this team’s primary weaknesses. In the long term, Miles McBride seems better suited to playing shooting guard, and Johnson could allow the Mountaineers to do so.
All that said, West Virginia likely needs Jordan McCabe to deliver early in the season while Johnson transitions to Division I basketball. He turned the ball over too much this year, thus his decline in minutes as the season progressed.
In particular, lob passes were a struggle. That must get better given the construction of the lineup if one or both bigs are back. If West Virginia can feed lobs to its bigs like Kansas did with Udoka Azubuike this season? The Mountaineers would look a whole lot better on offense.
Improved three-point shooting
West Virginia finished the season shooting 28.6 percent from three-point range, which goes down as the worst mark of Bob Huggins’ coaching career dating back to his time at Akron.
Presumably, it cannot get worse.
This is another area where Johnson figures to help after hitting better than 37 percent of his three-point attempts this year. If Sherman and Sean McNeil can shoot better than this year’s team-leading 33 percent, it could be crucial in making opposing defenses more honest.