Wed. Feb 21st, 2024

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For the first time this season, West Virginia is expected to take the floor at the WVU Coliseum on Wednesday with its full complement of players when the Mountaineers welcome Cincinnati at 7 p.m.

It marks the first meeting between the Mountaineers and Bearcats in 12 years and the contest can be seen on Big Now on ESPN+.

After missing the previous nine games, WVU center Jesse Edwards returned to the lineup in Saturday’s 70-66 loss at Oklahoma State. Edwards, who played 16 minutes in a reserve role, finished with four points, four rebounds and a pair of steals.

He will likely continue to take on an expanded role as he works his way back from a fractured wrist suffered exactly six weeks before his return to game action.

Jan 27, 2024; Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma State Cowboys guard Javon Small (12) grabs a rebound against West Virginia Mountaineers center Jesse Edwards (7) during the second half at Gallagher-Iba Arena. Mandatory Credit: William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

“He had an appointment yesterday which went really well. For him, more than anything it gives him some peace of mind and confidence moving forward,” West Virginia interim head coach Josh Eilert said. “There is going to be a little bit of pain he’s going to have to play through, but that’s very common for this injury. 

“Yesterday’s practice, he played with less hesitation than he’s played to this point. Anybody that watched Saturday saw that Jesse was favoring that wrist in a lot of ways. Maybe people thought it was rushed to get hime out there, but that was totally up to him. He gave me the go ahead on Saturday morning and said, ‘I’m ready. I want to try this.’ The moment we thought we needed him, we threw him out there.”

The 6-foot-11 Edwards, who averages 13.8 points and 8.3 rebounds, could be especially imperative to West Virginia (7-13, 2-5) against a Bearcats’ squad that is among the more physical teams in the Big 12.

At plus-10.1, Cincinnati (14-6, 3-4) has the best rebounding margin in the conference.

“They’re a very good offensive rebounding team and we understand that’s been a struggle to this point,” Eilert said, “so hopefully inserting Jesse into the lineup and getting him more comfortable can help us shore up some of the issues we’ve had.”

Viktor Lahkin, a 6-11 forward who leads UC with a 12.7 scoring average and is second at 7.5 rebounds, did not play in Saturdays’ 68-57 win over Central Florida as a result of sickness.

Seven-footer Aziz Bandaogo is another key piece of a balanced Bearcats’ attack and averages a team-best 8.3 boards to go with 7.7 points.

Dan Skillings Jr., a 6-6 guard, is second in scoring at 11.9 points, followed by guard Day Day Thomas (10.9) and wing John Newman III at 10 points.

“He has a lot of pieces to work with and they take the physicality to a higher level than a lot of teams by all means,” Eilert said. “They really rebound that ball like their life depends on it.”

UC has also established itself as a solid defensive team and limits opponents to 41 percent shooting and 66.5 points on average.

The Mountaineers, 7-5 at home and winless in eight road/neutral site contests, have been far more productive offensively in Morgantown, a trend they hope to continue at least throughout this week. 

RaeQuan Battle leads WVU with a 16.3 scoring average, though that figure significantly decreased after he struggled in last week’s road losses to Central Florida and the Cowboys, combining for seven points on 3-for-12 shooting. 

Battle finished the road trip with one fewer technical foul than field goal after he was ejected against the Knights.

“I keep on having conversations with him and some games, he can be such an amazing player for you, and other games, he forces some action and it can really hurt the team,” Eilert said. ”He, by no means, wants to hurt the team in any way, and he’s trying to figure out what that niche is that he can bring to the table and be effective as a scorer, as a defender, wherever that may be.”

Forward Quinn Slazinski (13.7) and guards Noah Farrakhan (11.1) and Kerr Kriisa (11.0) are also double-figure scorers, with Kriisa coming off the second-highest scoring game of his college career when he poured in 21 points and made 6-of-8 three-pointers at Oklahoma State.

Yet Kriisa fouled out of that contest and his absence loomed large down the stretch, with the Mountaineers letting another winnable game go by the wayside as they fell to 5-7 in contests decided by fewer than 10 points despite each of the first four Big 12 setbacks being by double digits.

“Down the stretch, they made those winning plays,” Eilert said of the Cowboys. ”They got that offensive rebound, kick-out and made that shot. When comparing game to game, the Kansas game and how we were so effective down the stretch, we were the team making those winning plays.” 

Perhaps having Edwards back in the shuffle aids West Virginia’s cause down the stretch of close games, though the Mountaineers’ top post presence will need time to round into form.

“That game was one of my first times out there in a few weeks,” Edwards said. “Really just my third time back on the court, so I was trying to do what I could do to help my team. The practices help get into your actual flow. I felt pretty good. It hurts, and it’s something that’s going to take a while. The bone looks great, but the ligaments around it takes some time.”

Having lost 65 percent of their games and with any postseason hopes likely resting on an ability to make a run in the Big 12 Tournament, the Mountaineers have not yielded their desired results for much of this season.

Part of that could at least be attributed to several key players being sidelined for long stretches, but that’s no longer the case.

“It’s hard to say the season starts now, but you finally have everybody you wanted to have at the start,” Edwards said. “It’s motivating in a way for us to show what we can actually do. We’ve had great wins and tough losses already. It’s nice to have the idea that you can go at full power and now it’s up to us to show what we have.” 

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