MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Recent roster attrition for the WVU men’s basketball team has forced the Mountaineers to change their style of play on both ends of the floor.
With Derek Culver (6-foot-10, 255 pounds) and Oscar Tshiebwe (6-foot-9, 260 pounds) on the court at the same time, the Mountaineers played with two true post players simultaneously. After Tshiebwe’s decision to transfer to Kentucky, WVU has a new look that is similar to many of their Big 12 opponents.
“It is kind of like we are going the route of everyone else,” said WVU associate head coach Larry Harrison. “From the NBA to college basketball, everyone is playing down, everyone is playing small. Now we pretty much match up with the majority of teams within our conference. If you look around the country, there weren’t too many teams that had two bigs playing like we were with Oscar and Derek (Culver).”
In the three games without Tshiebwe and Isaiah Cottrell (torn Achilles), the Mountaineers are 1-2. And the victory came only after a 19-point comeback with 11 minutes to play at Oklahoma State. With a two-week pause in games due to COVID cases within the Mountaineer program, WVU’s defensive reboot remains a work in progress.
“I think we can become a much, much better defensive team as time goes on. We have only played three games without Oscar. If you look from the Oklahoma game to the Texas game, with the style of play, I think we have gotten better on the offensive end. I just think we have to keep working to get better on the defensive end.”
Culver and Tshiebwe were WVU’s leading scorers last year and they accounted for over 30 percent of the team’s scoring. Now, players must rely on basketball instincts more on the offensive end of the floor.
“Now when you are going four-out, one-in, you are relying on basketball IQ and a lot of ball movement and body movement. They’re not standing around. That’s the adjustment we are making.
“Instead of running a lot of sets when we had Oscar and Derek, now there is a lot of motion. A lot of it is just knowing how to play the game instead of, when I pass it, I know I have to go here. Now when you make a pass, you have to make a basketball play.”
Harrison believes that two players in particular can benefit the most offensively with more space on the floor.
“I think it can open things up for Emmitt Matthews. I think he can become more of a slasher-type guy, getting to the basket.
“It opens up the door a little bit for Taj Thweatt. He is probably one of our most athletic guys, if not the most athletic guy. Instead of him having to know all the sets, now with the motion and the four-out, one-in, not that he is just going to run around and not know what he is doing, but he won’t have to worry about making as many mistakes as far as where he should be.”
In West Virginia’s last two games, Culver has pulled down 35 rebounds. He is the Big 12’s leading rebounder at 10.8 per contest. Other forwards will be relied upon to pick up the slack with a shortened roster.
“I don’t think it puts pressure on Derek. I think it puts pressure on guys like Gabe (Osabuohien), Emmitt, Jalen (Bridges) and Taj once he gets an opportunity. We have to rely on those guys to help Derek. There were times in the last three games where, if Derek shot the ball there was nobody there to get the offensive rebound. And if Derek didn’t shoot the ball, there was still only one person there to rebound the ball.
“People might say, well you guys are going to be better off without Oscar because it opens up the floor and those other guys get an opportunity. But losing Oscar, you are still losing a double-double guy. You can’t just say you are better off.”
Despite coming off the bench in every game this season, senior guard Taz Sherman is West Virginia’s third-leading scorer at 12.8 points per game. His three highest scoring outputs this season have come in the last three games (19 vs. Oklahoma, 20 vs. Oklahoma State, 17 vs. Texas).
“What we are seeing this year, we were hoping we would have gotten last year. Probably towards the end of the season last year, I think he started to come on and play pretty much like he is playing now, obviously not with the same numbers but he is playing with a lot of confidence.”
With three postponed games needing to be rescheduled, Harrison anticipates to possibility of making up games on short notice. Just like the North Texas game that was put together just over a day in advance, quickly prepared scouting reports could be required.
“Since we are in the conference now, we need to keep our scouts up to date. They may take someone at the end of our schedule and say, ‘Hey, you are going to play them in 48 hours’. It is harder on the coaches than the players. I think the players would rather play than practice. I think the coaches would rather make sure we are prepared.”