MORGANTOWN — Summer is upon us and that means West Virginia’s basketball team, trying to regroup after a trying season both on and off the court, returns to workouts and begins looking toward regaining its place among the Big 12’s elite teams
This year, the Mountaineers benefit by adding a solid recruiting class — headed by 5-star recruit Oscar Tshiebwe — and by ridding themselves of a number of players who underachieved and caused administrative problems and led to 21 losses.
They also benefit from a trip to Spain, which will hopefully allow them to play games against top-of-the-line opponents. This should also give the coaching staff an early look at how the newcomers are fitting in and what needs to be done to reshape the team as a whole.
As summer is a time for improvement, here is a look at what each player on West Virginia’s team needs to work on:
Derek Culver, sophomore forward:
The arrival of Oscar Tshiebwe might take some of the offensive pressure off Culver, should Huggins decide to play them together. However, when Culver is on the floor alone, he will be facing a lot of attention.
This summer, he needs to learn to handle double teams and how to pass out of the post. Culver also could prove to be a much better scorer than he was last season, during which he missed a lot of close in shots.
Although Culver gives all he has, he needs to prepare himself to run the floor harder on defense. There were a lot of times when he would get tired and not run as well as he should have, although he might be the fastest player on the floor.
If he can reach his potential and take advantage of the summer and the preseason, both of which he missed last year, Culver has the potential to turn in double-doubles almost every time he takes the floor.
Jermaine Haley, senior guard:
Haley struggled early last season, and seemingly settled into a supporting role rather than doing what was expected of him and taking charge.
The problem was a lack of confidence early, and Haley didn’t believe he should be taking charge with both Esa Ahmad and Sagaba Konate on the floor. However, as the team evolved with Konate disappearing due to injury and Ahmad disappearing to suspension, Haley found himself.
After scoring just 36 points in his first 14 games of the season, Haley averaged 16 points a game over the final 10 games, including games of 23, 24 and 28 points.
Haley does have to spend this summer working on his defense and must learn to stay between the basket and the defender and cut off drives to the hoops. All season, West Virginia was killed by players driving to the basket against most of the perimeter defenders.
Chase Harler, senior guard:
Harler had an opportunity to play a big role in last year’s team, but he wasn’t quite ready to take that step. A conscientious and serious competitor who should be one of the team’s leaders this season, Harler allowed too many opportunities to pass him by.
This summer, Harler has to work on his confidence on offense. That means he needs to get his perimeter shot to become a weapon.
Harler is out there to make 3s and too often he either passed them up or seemed uncertain and didn’t hit them. He also has to work hard on getting open as, too often last year, he would seem to get lost in the offense. This led to passing on shots he should have taken.
Brandon Knapper, sophomore guard:
Coming off knee surgery that cost him his first year, Knapper had trouble settling in last season and at one point seemed too overmatched. The South Charleston product should spend his summer cutting back on turnovers (he had 50 turnovers to just 46 assists last season).
Knapper has to shore up both his ball handling and passing. His biggest problems last season came against ball pressure, when he wanted to speed up his game and rushed himself into turnovers. He is extremely fast and has a lot of ability — as he showed with 25 points against Florida — but has to slow the game down so he doesn’t make so many bad decisions.
Emmitt Matthews Jr., sophomore forward:
Like Haley, Matthews became more confident and showed he has the ability to be a special player late in the season after an uncertain start.
Over the summer, he has to work on his perimeter shot, as he hit only 24.1% of 58 3-point shots last year. If Matthews can draw defenders out, it will greatly increase his offensive potential because he can get to the hoop.
While he also has to work on his defense, Matthews seems to have a desire to really ramp up on that side of the ball and has the ability to become an elite defender. Matthews showed just what kind of potential he has against Texas Tech, an NCAA finalist, when he scored 28 points against the Red Raiders on 10 of 14 shooting with 8 rebounds in the Big 12 Tournament.
Jordan McCabe, sophomore guard:
McCabe’s game should take a large — and less painful — step forward this year after having undergone meniscus surgery. He needed the surgery last year, but gutted it out, and his game had to suffer from that injury. McCabe is a tough kid who spends more time than anyone in the gym, but last year he showed a lot of inconsistencies in his game.
He has to spend his summer becoming more consistent and making good decisions when he drives to the basket. While McCabe is an excellent passer, he often himself caught up in traffic on the way to the rim and makes mistakes. A big part of the problem is that he makes the game too hard, rather than just taking the play that is there.
McCabe shot just 32.2% from the floor last year, and that is insufficient to get the job done. However, he did show marked improvement in all areas of his game, especially on defense, down the stretch, and that should carry over into this season.
Logan Routt, senior center:
If there is something he needs to improve upon, he will do it over the summer. No one has shown as much growth improvement in their game since coming in as a non-scholarship freshman than Routt and he will keep after it this year.
Routt can help himself this summer by being more consistent with his shots in close to the basket. He has a tendency to keep his head up when shooting the ball.
It wouldn’t hurt if Routt would work on his free throw shooting intensely over the summer as he has hit just 50% of his collegiate tries.
Oscar Tshiebwe, freshman forward; Miles McBride, freshman guard; Sean McNeil, sophomore guard; Ethan Richardson, junior forward:
For the newcomers joining the team, the summer is going to be a crash course for them. However, this is no different than what goes on every year when Bob Huggins brings players into his program.
It will be an adjustment for them in almost every way, from adapting to Huggins’ defense to adapting to Huggins himself, who can be tough on you while at the same time can be your best friend.
As important as it is to adapt to the coach and the system, with the amount that has changed within this West Virginia team there needs to be serious team building done over the summer. The newcomers need to spend the summer finding their roles in the complicated society within the locker room.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.