MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia had an offseason that no one hoped for.
Hall of Fame coach Bob Huggins is gone following a June drunken-driving arrest. Assistant Josh Eilert was named interim coach and worked feverishly to keep his roster from imploding because players had an emergency 30-day window to enter the transfer portal.
Several veteran players found new schools, others who had entered the portal stayed put and many newcomers arrived weeks after Huggins left. An August exhibition trip to Italy was postponed until next summer.
“It was a balancing act,” Eilert said. “It was a very delicate situation. First and foremost, I wanted to figure out who was all-in and I wanted to back them and let them know that they’re part of the foundation moving forward. And then slowly but surely as the 30 days came to a close, we’d start moving forward and putting those other pieces together and bringing those pieces in.”
On the wall of his office — Huggins’ old office — Eilert has a large photo of his introductory news conference. In the background is a reminder of his current situation: a TV graphic with the word “interim.”
In his view, Eilert, who was given a 10-month contract, is the head coach throughout the upcoming season, interim or not, and he wants to prove that he’s capable of building a program and having that tag removed.
“Now, is there a lot of pressure? Absolutely,” Eilert said. “But I’m excited to take on that challenge.”
OUT BEFORE THEY PLAYED
Once practices began, Eilert kicked graduate transfer guard Jose Perez off the team. Perez said on X, formerly Twitter, that his exit was over an academic disagreement involving study hall. Eilert said he set some non-negotiable rules during their first team meeting.
“I wasn’t going to compromise the integrity of the program and the culture of the program,” Eilert said.
After transferring from Manhattan, Perez sat out last season when the NCAA denied his waiver to play immediately. He transferred to Arizona State.
The NCAA also denied waiver requests by guards Omar Silverio and RaeQuan Battle. Silverio was Perez’s teammate at Manhattan but never played there and previously played at Hofstra. The Mountaineers planned to appeal the decision on Battle, who averaged 17.7 points last season at Montana State and previously played at Washington.
PROJECTING THE LINEUP
Only four players are back from last season’s roster.
The focus of the offense will be on Syracuse transfer center Jesse Edwards, who averaged 14.5 points and 10.3 rebounds last season. He’ll get plenty of looks from guard Kerr Kriisa, who averaged 10 points and five assists per game at Arizona.
After that, it gets tricky. In Battle’s place, the Mountaineers could turn to returning guards Seth Wilson and Kobe Johnson.
In the mix at forward are Georgetown transfer Akok Akok; Iona transfer Quinn Slazinski; freshman Ofri Naveh and veteran bench players Josiah Harris and Patrick Suemnick.
The roster has a considerable international flavor. For many of those foreign-born players, soccer was their first sport.
Edwards is from Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Kriisa’s hometown is Tartu, Estonia. Akok, who grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire, and backup center Ali Ragab are natives of Cairo, Egypt. Naveh is from Neot Golan, Israel.
“Yeah, it’s fun. Everybody’s got different cultures, different backgrounds,” Edwards said. “For the American guys, it might be something new, seeing all these dudes with different ideas and accents.”
THINKING OF HUGGS
Huggins signed Kriisa in April. Like others, Kriisa initially re-entered the portal after Huggins’ arrest, then decided he would remain with the Mountaineers.
“After everything went down, Bob told me that he’s going to be here for me. Whatever I need,” Kriisa said. “I felt that made me feel very comfortable, even though if he’s not around the team, he’s still going to be here in Morgantown and be here for me.”
West Virginia opens the season at home Nov. 6 against Missouri State. The Mountaineers start Big 12 play at No. 7 Houston on Jan. 6, host No. 18 Texas on Jan. 13, top-ranked Kansas on Jan. 20 and No. 20 Baylor on Feb. 17.
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