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WVU searching for identity without Tshiebwe

MORGANTOWN — Soon after the West Virginia men’s basketball team defeated Northeastern on Dec. 29, Oscar Tshiebwe took questions from the media through a video conference.

The Mountaineers had earned the win — their eighth of the season in 10 games — and Tshiebwe had put forth one of his strongest performances of the season: 12 points and a team-leading 15 rebounds in 21 minutes of action.

While Tshiebwe’s performance that day seemed to be a turning point during what had been a down year for the Congolese big man, it was the last time he would take the floor as a member of the Mountaineers.

Days later, the sophomore forward was on more video conferences, this time entertaining pitches from coaches on why their school should be Tshiebwe’s new home, which would end up being the University of Kentucky.

A former five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American, Tshiebwe came to WVU last season and almost immediately became one of the nation’s top freshmen, leading the Mountaineers with 11.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.

Despite regressing from last season’s success, the sophomore was still a pivotal member of the team as West Virginia’s starting power forward this season.

In losing Tshiebwe, head coach Bob Huggins and Co. were looking to replace an average of 8.5 points and nearly eight rebounds per game. The Mountaineers have yet to find it, but multiple players have stepped up in hopes of filling the void.

“We’re more guard and wing-oriented,” guard Miles McBride said prior to taking on Texas on Jan. 9.

“I think if we can space it out and throw it to a guy like Derek (Culver) where he is (isolated) down there and we kind of space around him, he’s a good enough passer to find those open guys.”

Having extended time off — especially in the middle of January — could prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Mountaineers, who have had three games postponed between Jan. 12 and Tuesday. Having dropped two of their three games since Tshiebwe left the team, the Mountaineers appear to still be searching for a new identity.

While Culver remains a key roster member, the Mountaineers needed to find a replacement for much of the offensive production and the touches that Tshiebwe had. Senior guard Taz Sherman has seen an increased role, providing a much-needed jolt of offense off of the bench.

“He came in a year ago and he was kind of feeling his way through,” Huggins said of Sherman.

“He’s playing with so much confidence right now. It’s more ‘give me the ball, I’ll score’ than before when kind of took a backseat to some other guys.”

Sherman, seeing a subtle increase in minutes, has elevated into one of the Mountaineers’ top offensive playmakers. The senior guard is averaging just under 19 points per game since Tshiebwe’s departure, making him one of the Big 12’s top bench scorers.

“Without a question, he and Derek have been our go-to guys, and our other guys are looking for him,” Huggins said. “He’s been our most consistent perimeter shooter and he can score a number of ways, which makes him all the more dangerous.”

Huggins had previously mentioned incorporating Fairmont native Jalen Bridges in order to help the Mountaineers better spread the floor, relying on the 6-foot-7 forward’s athleticism and versatility to help offensively. Despite sitting out the entirety of last season as a redshirt, Bridges is averaging 8.7 points and three rebounds per game over his three starts.

Outside of those two, players like freshman forward Seny Ndiaye have seen an increase in time on the court because of Tshiebwe’s departure, as well as the sidelining of forward Isaiah Cottrell, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon against Northeastern and is out for the season.

Yet, the Mountaineers appear to be at a potential inflection point.

West Virginia’s success has come in a variety of different forms this season, but those moments seem to be few and far between as of late. While the Mountaineers are officially eligible for the NCAA Tournament later this spring, the team’s play as of late leaves many questions whether they’ll even find a spot in the field.

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