It was an ugly 40 minutes for the Virginia Cavaliers against Wisconsin on Monday. Blowout losses make it difficult to look for any positives, but fortunately, we’re just five games into the new season, and there’s lots of time for improvement. The ‘Hoos need to bounce back against West Virginia.
West Virginia lost to a solid SMU team 70-58 on Monday, and they’re 2-2 on the season. Bob Huggins– the accomplished, divisive head coach of West Virginia for 16 seasons– resigned prior to the start of the 2023-24 season. Josh Eilert, a long-time assistant coach, has stepped in as the interim head coach for a team and program that’s looking to establish a new identity.
Here are three players, two matchups, and one prediction for Virginia vs West Virginia in Fort Myers tonight.
Jesse Edwards (Center)
After leaving Syracuse in search of a fresh start, Edwards chose West Virginia over numerous high-caliber suitors, only to be thrust into a disastrous situation when Huggins resigned over the summer. Edwards is a family face for Tony Bennett and the ‘Hoos. In two games against Virginia last season, Edwards averaged 9 points and 8.5 rebounds.
For West Virginia, Edwards has scored in double figures in every game so far this season. He thrives as a rim-runner, consistently finishing dunks in transition and rolling in pick-and-roll situations.
He’s also an excellent rim-protector and rebounder, especially on the offensive glass. Virginia’s done a horrific job of securing defensive rebounds, allowing an outlandish 20 offensive rebounds against Wisconsin on Monday, as well as 21 against Florida. The ‘Hoos need to fix this issue quickly or else players like Edwards will continue to feast inside.
Quinn Slazinski (Forward)
Most of the Mountaineer’s offensive production this season has come from the frontcourt. The duo of Edwards and Slazinski have combined to average 31.6 PPG. The redshirt-senior transfer from Iona is coming off a foot injury that kept him out of the majority of the 2022-23 season. Now that he’s fully healthy, Slazinski’s lighting it up as a true stretch-four.
He’s already hit 11 triples in four games this season. Slazinski pulls with zero hesitation off the catch and off the dribble, and his 6’9 frame makes it difficult to irritate his shot. Virginia needs to force him off the arc, making him beat them as a driver where he’s much less comfortable.
Kobe Johnson (Point Guard)
In light of transfer point guard Kerr Kriisa’s nine game suspension to start the season, Kobe Johnson went from a backup option to the starting point guard on the depth chart. The Mountaineers have only rotated in eight players this season because of injuries and the aforementioned suspension, so Johnson is averaging over 34 minutes per game.
Johnson’s a comfortable ball-handler. Despite limited minutes last season, he looks pretty confident running the point. However, his decision-making has been questionable so far. West Virginia begins a lot of possessions with a high ball-screen or some sort of post touch, and Johnson often makes errant passes and shoots contested shots in these scenarios.
While he averages 11 points per game, he’s shooting only 36% from the field. Reece Beekman and Dante Harris will look to prey on Johnson and the inexperienced West Virginia backcourt.
The Rebounding Battle
Not trying to beat a dead horse, but Virginia’s single greatest weakness so far this season has been the inability to defensive rebound. In two games against high-major opponents, they’ve been out-rebounded by 44. Wisconsin just dismantled Virginia on the glass as they rolled to a 24 point victory.
Blake Buchanan felt like a true freshman for the first time this season. Jacob Groves was too small for Wisconsin’s seven-footer Steven Crowl. But more than any individual shortcomings, the entire team hasn’t blocked-out effectively when shots are going up. Second-chances make it easy for even struggling offenses to gain confidence.
West Virginia isn’t remarkable in terms of size or rebounding numbers, but Edwards is an offensive-rebounding force. If Virginia cedes anywhere near the number of offensive boards they did against Wisconsin, it’s going to be a long night for the ‘Hoos.
Early in the season, both squads have struggled at times to create open shots. West Virginia lacks experienced shot-creators and passers in their current group of guards.
For Virginia, Reece Beekman is the only player who consistently generates offense for himself and others. At times, Beekman forces shots in contested areas because the other players aren’t penetrating or getting themselves open for shots.
The solution for Virginia’s woes may start with Isaac McKneely and Andrew Rohde hunting more shots. Both guards can score off the bounce and hit threes in tight spaces. Beekman and the Virginia offense need secondary shot creators to elevate their play if Virginia’s going to return to form.
West Virginia is undergoing a period of major overhaul. Without a completely healthy roster, they seem nothing more than a bottom-tier Big 12 team. Virginia’s loss against Wisconsin exposed some serious concerns, but the ‘Hoos are still the more talented, better-coached team. I expect Virginia to bounce back in commanding fashion led by a stellar defensive effort and improved shooting.
Prediction: Virginia 67, West Virginia 54