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Navigating new realities, Bob Huggins preparing for unique season

(Bob Huggins preseason Zoom conference)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Although many of the details of their schedule remain a work in progress, Bob Huggins will lead the Mountaineers into a 2020-2021 season with an experienced roster and elevated expectations this winter.

With their top three scorers and four of five starters returning, the Mountaineers should be one of the favorites to compete for the Big 12 Championship and make deep run into the month of March.

“I think we are talented,” said 14th year WVU head coach Bob Huggins. “We’ve got guys who know how to play. A lot of those guys got a lot of experience a year ago. They don’t want to go through what they went through a year ago. I am excited. I think we have a chance.”

West Virginia’s offseason regiment has endured stops and starts like many teams around the nation. Starting next week, the Mountaineers will be able to practice 30 times in a 42-day period leading up to the season opener.

“We don’t seem like we’ve got our entire cast for very many workouts, for a variety of reasons. They have been good. Their attitudes are great. This group gets along better, roots for, pulls for each other as well as any group we have had here in a long time, maybe since 2010.

“They are committed. They really have done a very good job. To be as committed as they have been and to be able to get as much done as what they have been able to get done in these times, I think is admirable.”

West Virginia’s schedule is in flux, due in large part to the recent NCAA decision to reduce the maximum number of regular season games from 31 to 27.

“The problem is we already had a schedule. Josh (Eilert) had done a great job of getting us a great non-conference schedule. And then we had to just about totally blow it up and start all over again. In starting over again, you have conferences like ours that still don’t have their conference schedule. So they want to play non-conference games but they don’t know if they are going to be able to play non-conference games because they don’t have their conference schedule as of now.”

West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins talks with Mountaineers forward Emmitt Matthews Jr. (11) at WVU Coliseum. (Photo by Ben Queen-USA Today Sports)

No preseason or scrimmage games can be held. The Mountaineers open their season at a three-game tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D. around Thanksgiving weekend.

“The most disturbing thing is they took away a scrimmage from us. We are going to go play three games in three days without ever playing against somebody else. I think that is not fair to our guys.

“We used to play as many as 31 and everyone seemed to like it. I don’t know what is wrong with playing games.”

West Virginia’s 2019-2020 season ended with a victory over No. 4 Baylor at the Coliseum on Senior Day, prior to the cancellations of the Big 12 and NCAA Tournament.

“They were really excited about playing in the conference tournament a year ago because we were starting to ride a high. Everything was going really well. Obviously that got canceled. And then the NCAA Tournament got canceled.

“They are looking forward to the NCAA Tournament. As I have said before, which I guess I am not supposed to say but it is the truth, the NCAA has to have an NCAA Tournament. There will not be any more NCAA. They won’t have enough money to exist. So we will play an NCAA Tournament and we will play in the NCAA Tournament.”

While Huggins welcomes back an experienced roster, a pair of freshmen could make immediate contributions in the frontcourt to help All-Conference selections Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe. Huntington Prep graduate Isaiah Cottrell has impressed Huggins throughout the offseason.

“He is a very skilled guy. He passes it well and he shoots it well. He handled it probably better than most of our bigs. I think he would be the first one to tell you though that it is hard, particularly for a big because people are bigger, stronger, faster.

“He is finding that out. I think it is great for him that he gets to play against a Derek Culver, an Oscar Tshiebwe, Gabe Osabuohien. You are playing against men.”

Fairmont Senior graduate Jalen Bridges (Photo by Eddie Ferrari)

Fairmont Senior graduate Jalen Bridges bulked up during his first year as a Mountaineer. The 2019 West Virginia High School Player of the Year will compete for playing time as a redshirt freshman this year.

“He has benefitted a great deal, particularly physically. He has really done a good job in the weight room. He has gotten stronger. He is playing so much more assertive. I thought at the end of last year, he was one of our better offensive rebounders. We need him to continue to do that.

“He is 6-foot-7, nearly 6-foot-8 now and can make shots. He can stretch a defense. And he has gotten much better defensively.”

Schedule notes:

WVU Assistant Athletics Director for Communications Bryan Messerly announced on the Zoom call that the Mountaineers will play a 27-game regular season schedule. 18 of those games will be in Big 12 play. As for the 9 non-conference games:

  • 3 will be in the season-opening tournament at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. Huggins said 7 of the 8 original teams will be in the field.
  • 1 will be in the annual Big 12/Big East event
  • 1 will be in the annual Big 12/SEC event
  • 4 other games will be scheduled. The first WVU home game will likely take place in the first week of December.
  • Pittsburgh will not be on West Virginia’s schedule in the 2020-2021 season.
  • No preseason games or ‘closed scrimmages’ will be played.

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