On March 7, 2020, the West Virginia men’s basketball team hosted No. 4 Baylor at the WVU Coliseum on senior day, in front of a sold-out crowd of 14,000, as the Mountaineers upset the Bears, 76-64. WVU was ready to roll into the Big 12 Tournament after their biggest win of the season.
The Mountaineers had a date with Oklahoma in the quarterfinals round of the tournament. The team had a long-awaited 8 p.m. tip-off, as they were the last game of the day.
As West Virginia was going through their morning routine, a bombshell hit the entire NCAA basketball world, as conference tournaments were getting canceled all morning. From a game between Creighton and St. John’s being canceled at halftime, to the rest of the Power Five conferences making a decision, it was time for Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby to make a decision of his own and cancel the conference tournament.
Later that day, the NCAA president Mark Emmert and the board of governors canceled March Madness, leaving teams and fans disappointed and shocked with what all transpired within hours.
“Having the rug pulled out from under you and your team, I don’t think anybody ever wants to feel that again,” WVU guard Miles “Deuce” McBride said.
The Mountaineers were just on top of the world and they were being sent home, with no closure on the season. Most of the players went home and tried their best to make up their time together off the court as much as they could. The team hosted Zoom sessions in the first couple of months to get interaction with each other.
WVU head coach Bob Huggins would even get on Zoom—with the help of his daughter, Jenna.
During quarantine, everyone experienced a sense of boredom, with some even creating new hobbies. Discovery’s Naked and Afraid added a new fan to the show, as coach Huggins binge-watched the show during his downtime. The players had to come up with new, creative ways to workout without gyms. Miles McBride practiced with his brother, Trey, in their home backyard in Cincinnati, Ohio.
While McBride was home with his family, WVU forward Gabe Osabuohien was in a unique situation during quarantine, as the senior is from Toronto, Ontario, in Canada. Osabuohien made a sacrifice and decided to not go home.
“During this whole quarantine, I did not go back to Canada,” Osabuohien said. “I did not want to go through anything or want to jeopardize anything, so I just stayed up here in Morgantown the whole time, worked out and just been in the gym.”
West Virginia was ready to start the transition of coming back to campus and prepare for the upcoming season. Just a few days away from starting in-person workouts as a team, five members of the team tested positive for the virus.
The team returned to campus and started practice up again on July 20 without even knowing if they would have a season.
In what was becoming another uphill battle to climb, the team was now forced to limit the amount of people they socialized with as school started back up. The only people it was safe seeing were their teammates. For example, during the football season, the players took turns hosting pizza watch parties with the team. The team was willing to sacrifice their social life for the opportunity to play basketball.
As school started for all college students, it took a little bit to adjust to the new class life. Instead of in-person classes, it was all online on Zoom. The daily life of a college student was to wake up, get on Zoom, eat, do homework and sleep. Every. Single. Day.
“There are kids that go out all the time. You see it on their Snapchat and Instagram stories and they all are having that fun time,” WVU forward Emmitt Matthews Jr. said. “It’s just one of those sacrifices we have to make because at the end of the day we all have a goal, which is to win a national championship.”
“A couple of my classes are just strictly online, so it’s just discussion posts, exams, quizzes, things like that,” WVU guard Sean McNeil said on an episode of The Final Fourcast. “A couple of my classes are on zoom, so we sit there for an hour, hour and fifteen minutes with all of your classmates just talking. Sometimes the professor asks you a question but a lot of times you’re just half-listening.”
West Virginia started their highly anticipated season in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic—which originally was the Battle 4 Atlantis Invitational. What used to be a field with other Power Five schools turned quickly into a field of mid-major programs, the Mountaineers used the South Dakota trip to understand who they were.
Coach Huggins was watching ESPN in South Dakota, when he saw that No. 1 Gonzaga was looking for an opponent for the Jimmy V Invitational in Indianapolis, Indiana. Huggins was able to make calls to some of his connections at ESPN. Within just 15 minutes, Huggins scheduled a game with the best team in the country.
During the non-conference part of the season, WVU had some postponements that they had to find opponents for; Robert Morris turned into North Texas and Buffalo turned into Northeastern. The man behind this mess? WVU Director of Basketball Operations Josh Eilert.
“Josh [Eilert] can get on a laptop and find teams that need games,” Huggins said. “I’m old school. I pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey do you want to play?’”
“Josh is way, way ahead of me,” Huggins added.
At the end of the non-conference schedule, the Mountaineers were looking at an 8-2 start on the season as they had a respectable start to the year. The only losses coming to No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 3 Kansas was a way to look at the positives and think that this year’s team had a chance to go far in March.
While most were out saying farewell to 2020, the Mountaineers were about to be faced with a new obstacle to start 2021. Some of that hope was lost when the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve, as rumors started to swirl that Oscar Tshiebwe was leaving the program. As people were drinking and having a good time, Tshiebwe mysteriously removed all of his social media posts. On the morning of the new year, it was confirmed that Tshiebwe had entered the transfer portal. Why would a talent like Oscar leave the team in the middle of the year? Huggins spoke with the media hours after the news broke.
“Did it catch me by surprise? No. What are we going to do moving forward? Win more games,” Huggins said.
Huggs made it that simple.
For everyone else, it was a little bit of panic, as the only big man playing consistent minutes was Derek Culver. Just days before Tshiebwe left, backup freshman Isaiah Cottrell tore his Achilles in the previous game. The other freshman bigs Seny Ndiaye and Taj Thweatt were just not ready yet to get a lift in minutes. That just left one option to step up: the Fairmont, West Virginia native, Jalen Bridges entered the starting lineup to replace the quitting Tshiebwe.
In his first game starting for the Mountaineers, Bridges recorded a 19-point performance—which was his career-high at the time. The redshirt freshman gave the Mountaineers a new and exciting offense, as they were playing four scorers around Culver. As the fans were surprised to see this show by Bridges, his teammates knew it was only a matter of time before this happened.
“Well, we didn’t really have to get him [Bridges] ready,” Taz Sherman said. “It was more so of when he’s going to start being him. In practice, he’s the same guy making shots, rebounding, really playing hard, giving his all. That’s just who JB is.”
Despite the great game by Bridges, West Virginia lost its first game without Tshiebwe against Oklahoma. The Mountaineers had to quickly travel from Norman, Oklahoma, to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to take on Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma State, just two days after losing to the Sooners.
Midway through the second half, Oklahoma State went on an 8-0 run to go up on West Virginia, 68-49. With the game getting away from WVU, a spark of energy from Miles McBride and Taz Sherman helped get the Mountaineers back into the game. To counter the run by OSU, WVU went on a run of their own, scoring 11-straight points to bring the game closer in reach. Eventually, a pair of free throws by McBride made it a one-possession game with four minutes to go. McBride wasn’t done though, as the sophomore guard went on to hit 2-threes to give West Virginia the lead.
The Mountaineers were back in business. McBride hit two free throws with a few seconds remaining and Oklahoma State couldn’t tie the game, missing a three-point attempt to secure the comeback win for West Virginia. With losing their leading scorer from the previous season, the Mountaineers were able to mount a comeback win on the road against a very good team.
“I knew change was probably going to have to happen but I didn’t know if we were going to be willing as a program and staff to do that mid-season,” WVU guard Jordan McCabe said. “It’s not easy but all credit to Huggs, [Larry] Harrison, [Erik] Martin, [Ron] Everhart and the entire staff.”
Next, the Mountaineers had to deal with familiar off-the-court issues, as the Coronavirus returned within the program. Derek Culver and Emmitt Matthews Jr. tested positive for the virus, which resulted in three games being postponed. Matthews ended up losing 18 pounds during his illness. The rest of the team had to isolate and weren’t allowed in the facility. Some of the players couldn’t help it and snuck into the facility or found local parks to shoot around. What was a crucial part of the season for the Mountaineers, turned into a break that they did not want to have.
When the team returned to play, Huggins was asked if he’s concerned or scared of the virus ruining play, which led to an all-time answer by Huggins.
“When I was a kid they used to ask me, ‘You’re not afraid of very much are you?’ I said, ‘I’m afraid of ghosts,’” Huggins said. “They said, ‘Why are you afraid of ghosts?’ I said, ‘I can’t see them. I can’t hit anything I can’t see.’ That’s how I feel right now.”
Following a win in their first game back, the Mountaineers welcomed Texas Tech to Morgantown in a top-15 matchup. Once again, West Virginia fell behind by double-digits in the second half, facing a 12-point deficit with seven minutes to play.
Enter “Stress Virginia” basketball!
While the fans were on the edge of their seats and their heart rates up, the Mountaineers calmly did their thing on the court. Once again, the hero was Miles McBride, as the 6-foot-2 guard scored 15 points in the comeback. McBride helped West Virginia finish the game strong, as the team made 9-field goals in-a-row to get in reach of Texas Tech. This led to McBride having the ball with 12 seconds to-go, and Deuce made what was the best play of the season.
Coming back from a large first-half deficit turned out to be a favorite activity for West Virginia this season. This wasn’t the last time that West Virginia came back from a massive deficit in the second half. On Feb. 20, the Mountaineers were facing yet another 19-point lead on the road. This time against the Texas Longhorns. Sean McNeil gave the team a spark, scoring 16 points during the comeback. The junior guard hit 3-threes to quickly bring WVU back into the game. The Mountaineers won, 84-82.
You would think after all of these comebacks that the players would use these games as reference points?
“Not really, I just think it’s something in our West Virginia culture,” McBride said after the win over Texas. “The DNA here is just to never quit, never give up no matter how much you get down.”
At a record of 17-6 on March 1, West Virginia was able to have a great regular season after a pandemic hit the program twice, a future NBA player left the team in the middle of the year and faced a few double-digit deficits to ranked teams… until, adversity entered again.
Remember the games that the Mountaineers missed in January? The Big 12 rescheduled those games and WVU beat TCU while losing to Baylor and Oklahoma State. West Virginia headed into the Big 12 Tournament with no momentum, losing 2-out-of-3 games in the final week of the regular season. The Mountaineers received the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament and matched up with the team that just beat them. A date with Oklahoma State had been set for the quarterfinal round of the Big 12 Tournament. The team was stunned after Oklahoma State went on a 21-2 run and wasn’t able to complete the comeback this time around, losing in the first game of the conference tournament, 72-69.
Having momentum going into the tournament has been a big part of some team’s successes in the “Big Dance.” Now, the Mountaineers have placed themselves in a tough situation, entering the NCAA Tournament with no momentum after going losing 3-of-4 games over the past two weeks.
West Virginia will begin their NCAA Tournament run as the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region, taking on the No. 14 seed Morehead State Eagles in the round of 64.
(Top Photo: Dale Sparks)