The West Virginia Mountaineers Men’s Basketball team has had solid start to the season with a 9-1 record heading into Saturday evening’s game against the UAB Blazers. The defense has been better than expected allowing only 60.7 points per game (30th best in the country) along with forcing 18.6 turnovers per game (8th best in the country). Offensively, the Mountaineers have one of the top scorers in the nation in Taz Sherman, and a solid “Robin” to Taz’s “Batman” in Sean McNeil. However, after Taz and Sean, there is a huge drop off in talent and reliability.
Taz and Sean account for 46% of all of WVU’s shots and 48% of team points. Additionally, they are the only two players on the team that average more than 6 shots per game. While Sherman and McNeil, may be able to carry the team to victories against lower-level competition, Big 12 coaches will find a way to take them out of the game. McNeil is a “microwave” scorer with most of his points coming in bunches and can be prone to cold streaks. Additionally, McNeil does most of his scoring on catch and shoot opportunities with more than 60% of his makes being assisted. This means that opposing teams will try to always keep a man tight on him to limit the room he has to shoot and could be a very effective strategy. Taz is a little harder to stop, but with limited help outside of McNeil, defenses can shift their focus to trapping and doubling Taz when he has the ball to disrupt WVU’s offense.
This is where a third scoring option is direly needed. Early in the season, it seemed like Malik Curry might have been that guy, scoring 10 points on 5-5 shooting against Pittsburgh and helping lead the comeback against Eastern Kentucky with a 16-point performance on 6-8 shooting. However, Curry loves to drive to his left and finish in the lane and opposing teams have caught on. In the past 3 games, Curry has 2 made field goals on 17 attempts and only 8 points. If Curry is to be the third option, he will need to add a new element to his game.
Before the season started, there was a ton of hype around Jalen Bridges having a breakout year. The issue is that Bridges has not shown the aggressiveness needed on the offensive end to be that guy yet. Throughout his whole WVU career, Bridges has only shot the ball 10 times or more once. When he does shoot, he has been effective, sporting a career true shooting percentage of 60.7%. While that number may drop with more attempts, it would not make Bridges a worse offensive player. For comparison, Sherman’s true shooting percentage is 56.1% and McNeil’s is 52.2%. If Bridges starts shooting more, it will open up WVU’s offense even more.
Another interesting option is a player who can help WVU in multiple areas: inside scoring and outside shooting. Isaiah Cottrell is definitely behind his ideal development curve due to his Achilles injury from last year, but Big 12 play would be the ideal time for him to turn the corner. Cottrell is the tallest player on the roster at 6’10”, and he provides the ability to score from all 3 levels due to his shooting touch. While strength-wise, he may not be ready to back down defenders on the low post, his quick feet should allow him to navigate around stronger defenders. And WVU badly needs a low post scoring presence; Taz Sherman currently leads the team with 45 shot attempts from close 2-point range and Gabe Osabuohien is 2nd with 28 attempts. As a team, WVU only shoots about 36% of all its shots from close 2-point range, which is only a few percentage points higher than they take the worst shot in basketball: long 2s. Additionally, Cottrell has been comfortable shooting from mid-range and 3-point range, and Coach Huggins raved about his outside shooting before the season. Cottrell’s agility and shooting ability could even help give WVU’s offense a different look by running pick and roll or pick and pops with Sherman and Cottrell, which should consistently generate good looks. If Cottrell can figure out his offensive game, he could completely change how defenses have to guard the Mountaineers’ offense.
The season is still young, but this year’s WVU team looks like it has all the pieces it needs to be outstanding. The key is going to be who will step up to take pressure off Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil. If a reliable third scoring option emerges during Big 12 play, the Mountaineers could be problem for other teams come March.
Check out the Voice of Motown Podcast below to hear more of Brandon’s basketball thoughts: