MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — The past decade for West Virginia’s football and men’s basketball teams has been a lean one, especially when held up for comparison to what was one of the golden eras of sports at the school, 2002 through 2011.
There is, however, hope that things are now about to turn around. Neal Brown has three years under his belt in football, having had to restructure and rebuild the program through the scourge that was COVID-19.
He now faces his most pivotal season, one in which he is now competing with the challenges and help of the transfer portal and NIL money.
In basketball, Bob Huggins has suffered through two losing seasons in the last four years and has won 20 games only once during the time. He, of course, has faced the same type of challenges, probably suffered worse from their effects, but now has dedicated himself to rebuild the toughness, the defense, the pressure that signified his earlier days at his alma mater.
In this new world that is collegiate sports, it has become imperative that veteran players come in from the outside as “free agents”, so to speak, to offer impact on programs where the direction it is headed can change from year to year.
So, who are the players — or individuals — who were not on campus a year ago who are expected to create the most impact on the major sports at WVU — football and men’s basketball — in the next year?
Let’s break it down, beginning with football.
In the past decade WVU’s football program produced a 68-56 record compared to 95-33 in the prior 10 years. They won more than eight games only eleven. The previous decade’s teams won more than eight games every year, never missing a bowl game and splitting 10 appearances.
The most impactful player brought in this year is not any surprise, being quarterback JT Daniels, a 5-star recruit out of high school who started at both USC and Georgia, last year losing his job through injury in what turned out to be a national championship season.
Quarterback, of course, is where winning offenses begin and end and Daniels believes he’s found a home for at least one year — possibly two — where he can ignite the return to the kind of offensive football that the Mountaineers played with Pat White, Geno Smith and Will Grier at the controls.
“We were looking for a guy who was at the end of his career,” Brown told Pro Football Focus shortly after he signed. “We wanted somebody that we felt could fit within our locker room, and we wanted somebody with experience who had really established himself.”
And, according to Daniels’ father, Steve, WVU was the perfect fit for him.
“He felt comfortable with the staff. He felt there was plenty of talent there to win. They took him in, they have this analytics dude. They have all these ratings for all the players. They said that JT comes in and is among the best QBs in the Big 12. It takes them rougly from six wins to 10 wins at a minimum. That was big. He wants to win a championship and now they know the Big 12 title is attainable.”
Daniels comes in to a new school but not a new offense. He is no stranger to the next-most impactful newcomer on the WVU football team, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, who promises an exciting Air Raid offense that will “try to score every time we have the ball”,
And he obviously believes Daniels is the man who can pull it off, having started him at USC as a true freshman and gotten positive results from the decision.
Under Harrell, Daniels threw for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns his first year at USC.
There’s little reason to believe, with WVU now deep in receivers and with an experienced offensive line and some depth at running back, not to believe that his coach-player combination will not create a new offensive excitement.
On defense there was a lot of rebuilding necessary for the Mountaineers but the man who must make the biggest impact is a former Syracuse player who never got much beyond special teams play there but blossomed at the junior college level last year.
His name is Lee Kpogba and his job is to replace middle linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo, last season’s leading tackler. He brings a different look with him, one that will be appreciated by the entire defense for his style of him is to play with speed and with the kind of enthusiasm who can light the fuse on an explosive defense.
“I’m excited about what he brings — the dimension that he brings to the defense,” said inside linebacker coach Jeff Koonz. “He’s a physical kid.”
As spring practice was starting, Neal Brown described him this way:
“He never has a bad day. He enjoys the game. His love for the game is contagious. When you watch Lee practice… it takes about three seconds to figure out how much he loves football. So, that’s fun to coach. It’s fun to play next to.
“I think he has a bright future. He runs. We need speed at that spot.”
On the men’s basketball side, Huggins had to begin with the foundation and completely rebuild… but true to his nature, it wasn’t going to be a long, patient rebuilding period. Newly elected to the sports Hall of Fame, Huggins when through the portal and junior college ranks to create a new and different team.
He brought in four Power 5 transfers, each capable of having a major impact on the team.
It begins with Joe Toussaint, who is everything Huggins looks for in a player…tough, plays good defense, is out of the New York City area.
Huggins need guard help with Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil gone and the 6-foot, 190-pound Toussaint provides the things McNeil and Sherman didn’t. They were scorers; Toussaint at Iowa was someone who made those around him better.
He averaged 3.2 assists and 1.4 steals a game with a 2.33 assist-to-turnover ratio as a junior at Iowa, which will be welcome after Huggins spent most of last year complaining that his team threw the ball to the guys in the other jerseys far too often.
“Joe is a really good defender who can handle and pass the ball extremely well,” Huggins said of him. “He is really good in transition, and what we didn’t have last year in putting pressure on the ball, he will help fix that.”
Does that sound like there will be return to some form of Press Virginia?
“He’s a hard-nosed, tough guard who is experienced, playing in almost 100 career games.”
In Erik Stevenson of South Carolina, Huggins added a different kind of guard, someone whose play will complement Toussaint. He’s 6-4, 205 and so experienced that WVU is his third school of him.
Last season at South Carolina, he started every game and averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per contest. He only missed one free throw, shooting 61-of-62 (98.4%) from the free throw line. Stevenson had 85 assists and 33 steals. He has scored season highs of 25 points in games against Auburn and Wofford.
“First and foremost, Erik is a tremendous competitor,” Huggins said. “He’s a very aggressive, tough and versatile player who can play many ways and in many different systems. Erik has a ton of experience, especially in the various leagues that he has played in. He will be an outstanding leader for us.”
Huggins’ two most impactful transfers probably are in the front court as both are familiar with the Big 12 and one, Emmitt Matthews Jr., is back at home where his college career began after playing last season at home at the University of Washington.
Matthews, oddly, takes the place of the man who wound up taking his place, Jalen Bridges, and with that year in Washington under his belt figures to return not only eager but improved. He was, of course, one of the most popular Mountaineer players before he left.
“We are extremely excited to have Emmitt back as a Mountaineer,” Huggins said. “He is a great teammate who made countless big plays at crunch time during his three years here. We look forward to having his athleticism and shot-making ability around the perimeter in addition to his rebounding at both ends of the floor. His experience of he will be invaluable.”
The final piece of the puzzle is Tre Mitchell, who comes in from Texas to solve a problem that plagued WVU the past two years… making baskets down deep.
The Mountaineers spent the past two years looking as if they were allergic to making layups but Mitchell could provide the inside game Huggins absolutely needs to move out of last place in the Big 12 and jump all the way into contention.
“Tre gives us a much-needed presence inside who we can throw the ball to,” Huggins said. “He’s a big-time Power 5 starter who is extremely experienced. Tre can score and rebound the ball.”
Mitchell, who stands 6-9 and is a solid 240 pounds, averaged 8.7 points and 4.0 rebounds at UT before taking a leave of absence to attend to personal problems in February.
A native of Pittsburgh, he was a star at UMass before transferring to Texas last season.