By Bill Nestor
There is no one involved with the West Virginia University men’s basketball program that has been feeling as much pressure as interim head coach Josh Eilert. He has been in essence coaching for his coaching career in Morgantown. He knows that this season will determine whether or not he will remain in charge of the Mountaineer program and the interim tag will be dropped , or if he will be removed from the post altogether.
There have been more ups and downs in the early stage of the season than that of a monstrous roller coaster ride.
The new year started with an embarrassing blowout loss to Houston. The 34 point set back in the Lone Star State had fans concerned about the upcoming Big 12 schedule. Just three days later, WVU bounced back at the Colosseum and held a two point lead over Kansas State at halftime. The Wildcats would go on to outscore West Virginia by 16 in the final 2-0 minutes to run away with the victory.
Eilert and his squad had to feel a little dazed and confused heading into last Saturday night’s lock-up with ranked Texas. The Longhorns invaded Morgantown ranked number 25 in the country and were the prohibitive favorite. Eilert knew that he had to make some changes, and to his credit he tweaked his defense and his lineup, both of which proved to be difference-makers in a 76 to 73 upset win over Texas. Eilert placed an extra emphasis on help defense. At the same time, he didn’t want his players to spread out and gravitate too far from the basket. That prevents teammates from being in good help position and it creates dribble-drive lanes.
Eilert also made significant changes to his starting lineup, moving Noah Farrakhan, Akok Akok, and Quinn Slazinski out of the starting lineup. Inserted in the starting five were Josiah Harris, Kobe Johnson, and Pat Svemnick. The changes were just what the doctor ordered and proved the major factor in the matchup with the Horns.
Farrakhan is a terrific ballhandler and can spell Kerr Kriisa at the point guard position. He can also score the ball off the dribble. His drive and dish capabilities can set up pure shooters like Slazinski.
Quinn responded with 13 bench points in the win. Suemnick is a prime example of rewarding a player for hard work. I’ve been impressed with his attention to detail on post moves since the start of the campaign. His engine goes full speed all of the time and, after his 12-point and five rebound effort in Cougar Country, he earned the start. He responded with 16 points to lead the Mountaineers in scoring on five of seven shooting from the field. He also hauled down six caroms on the night.
The defensive moves made also paid huge dividends, forcing the visitors into 22 turnovers. That is a big number that played a substantial role in the outcome of this key contest. These moves showed that Eilert knows a thing or two about the game of basketball and that he is not afraid to make the necessary moves needed to win.
He already has shown that he is an exceptional recruiter and that he can bring top talent to town. Now he has that signature win over a ranked Texas team to add to his resume. The fact that he made the moves to make it happen has to make it that much sweeter. Hopefully, this win will take the monkey off of his back and allow him to settle into a groove. Another positive sign is that standout center, Jesse Edwards, could return from injury in a couple of weeks. Edwards will provide more power in the paint and, with Suenmick’s emergence, there could be a twin towers sighting at the Colosseum.
Things are starting to look up for Eilert and the Mountaineers!