If there was one word that described the prospects for the 2019-20 West Virginia basketball team it was uncertainty. It was a team coming off a terrible season with a slew of new faces.
At the season’s approximate halfway point, the Mountaineers (14-3, 3-2 Big 12) have exceeded even the most optimistic fan’s expectations.
As would be expected, most of the individual players that make up the better-than-expected team have been over-achievers themselves.
Sophomore Derek Culver (10.6 points per game, 9.3 rebounds per game) has built on his very solid freshman campaign and is one of the best big men in the Big 12. Highly touted freshman Oscar Tshiewbe (11.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg) has been inconsistent – as one would expect from a first-year player – but Tshiewbe’s best is as good as anyone in the conference.
Fellow freshman Miles McBride (10.2 ppg, 1.2 steals per game) is developing into the Mountaineers best two-way perimeter player. He’s the best Mountaineer at creating his own offense. Miles was not nearly as hyped as Tshiewbe, but halfway through their freshman seasons, it’s a legitimate debate as to whom is WVU’s best rookie.
Senior Chase Harler (4.9 ppg) has gone from someone who didn’t look like he belonged on a Power 6 scholarship to a valuable role player for a top 15 team. Gabe Osabuohien’s (3.9 rpg, 1.3 spg) effort and defensive intensity draws Dennis Rodman comparisons nightly.
On a team full of over-achievers, the under-achievement of sophomore Jordan McCabe is sharply apparent.
McCabe and Culver were integral to last year’s late-season push that provided a little light on an otherwise very dark campaign. On a team full of unknowns, they were the established holdovers expected to help lead the Mountaineers.
Culver has done that. McCabe, to say the least, has not.
McCabe has started every game for the Mountaineers this season. You wouldn’t know it by looking at his stat line. He is 10th on the team in scoring (3.1 ppg). He’s ninth in minutes played per game (13.1). What he isn’t contributing in scoring, he isn’t making up for as a playmaking point guard. Osabuohien and Culver each have more assists per game than McCabe (1.9).
WVU coach Bob Huggins seems to have little patience with McCabe. He certainly had more during McCabe’s late-season play last year. But it makes sense the Huggins would have a quicker hook now than a year ago. He has far more options this season.
Gurads McBride, Harler, Brandon Knapper and Sean McNeil each have had better seasons than McCabe. They all have been better scorers and better defenders than McCabe. With the production they and McCabe have contributed thus far, it makes sense that Huggins wouldn’t give McCabe minutes over them.
McCabe’s lack of production is a harsh negative in an otherwise incredibly positive season. Since he’s still getting starts, it’s possible something clicks with the Wisconsin native and he finds that spark he had last season. But those opportunities to rekindle that fire dwindle more as each game passes.
Even if what we’ve seen of McCabe in the first half of the season is what we’re going to get – and that is more rather than less likely – he still can have an important (albeit limited) role.
McCabe remains the best ball handler on the team. It’s quite possible he’s the best ball handler in the conference. While that hasn’t resulted in much of a contribution so far, it could in the future.
Even if he is usurped permanently by McBride and company, McCabe’s skill set could be invaluable if the Mountaineers face a press. This likely will come up if they have a lead and the opponents begin pressing to try to get back into the game (as WVU did against Kansas State on Saturday).
In this situation, McCabe’s ball handling can be the ultimate neutralizer to calm the choppy waters of a trapping press. He did it in WVU’s win over Wichita State earlier this season. He’s likely going to have an opportunity to help the team this way again.
It’s disappointing that McCabe hasn’t been able to build upon what was a very encouraging freshman year. It’s disappointing that we’ve likely already seen the best of McCabe as a Mountaineer. It’s disappointing that it’s likely a player with the upside of McCabe won’t reach it in Morgantown. It’s disappointing that McCabe likely will be at another university next year.
A lot has gone right for West Virginia this season. But nothing is perfect.
There are disappointments even in the best of times.