KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As Sam Elliott’s character in “The Big Lebowski” said, “I wouldn’t miss the semis,” and, well, neither has the West Virginia men’s hoops team in its last four ventures into the Big 12 tournament. So, welcome back to the Big 12 semifinals, where the Mountaineers (14-19) have suddenly taken what was mostly a forgettable season and given it a bit of a spark in March.
The 10th-seeded Mountaineers will take on a familiar foe in No. 3 seed Kansas (24-8), with the winner advancing to Saturday’s championship game against either Iowa State or top-seeded Kansas State.
How did the Mountaineers get to this point? Maybe it was Kansas coach Bill Self who said it best, “The team that I watched play [Thursday night] is hungry. They’re playing with a free mind.”
More to that point, West Virginia isn’t just playing like a team that is on house money or with nothing to lose. There is a bit more to it than that.
” The coaches give us the game plan and they need us to execute what they see,” WVU point guard Jordan McCabe said. “But, they also constantly tell us, ‘Go play. Go play.’ We were brought here for similar reasons that, you know, you can’t teach certain things. The reason we have some of these guys on this team is because their ability to make plays is phenomenal.”
West Virginia has never played a second this season by the book and it cost the Mountaineers dearly in the regular season, but now that attitude of being a bit different, maybe even a bit naive and carefree, has turned into upset wins against Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
“The book on us is open. It’s wide open right now,” forward Emmitt Matthews said. “We’re still writing the pages. We’re building day by day and getting closer as a unit. These guys are my brothers. These guys are my family and we’re showing how much we’ve come together.”
Heading into the semifinals, here’s what you need to know:
TV: ESPN2 for the 9:30 tip-off. BETTING LINE: Kansas is a 10-point favorite.
THREE GOOD QUESTIONS
What catches the eye about WVU’s late turnaround? For me, it’s a look at the stat sheet. Emmitt Matthews has steadily shown improvement to his game once March rolled around, but his season average is just 4.7 points per game. Jordan McCabe and Jermaine Haley solidified this backcourt on Feb. 23, against Baylor, but on the season Haley is averaging 6.5 points and 4.0 rebounds, while McCabe is at 5.6 points per game. If you just looked at the Mountaineers’ stat sheet as a whole, you wonder what the heck is going on, but only by taking a closer look do you understand how things came together just at the right time for this team.
What are the keys against Kansas? The biggest focus could be the play of Jayhawks’ freshman big man David McCormack, who reached double figures in minutes played only once through the first half of Big 12 play in the regular season, but has developed into a steady player as of late. True, he is a McDonald’s All-American and is 6-foot-10 and 265 pounds, but his late-season development is still worthy of note. He had 13 points and nine rebounds in Kansas’ 65-57 quarterfinal victory against Texas. Over the last seven games, McCormack is averaging 9.4 points and 4.4 rebounds. Those aren’t eye-popping, but for a guy who didn’t even reach 40 minutes played on the season until Dec. 18, it’s not bad. Plus his size and ability takes some of the focus away from Kansas forward Dedric Lawson, who has averaged 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in two games against the Mountaineers this season.
Who wins the other Big 12 semifinal game? From a crowd-perspective, the Iowa State-Kansas State game will likely be loud, because you have two teams with some of the best fan support at the Sprint Center. The Kansas-WVU game will be a one-sided crowd with K.U. fans all over the place. As for the game itself, has Iowa State suddenly turned it around after flopping at the end of the regular season? Is K-State really that good without forward Dean Wade? It’s a matchup of Iowa State’s offense against Kansas State’s defense and generally defense wins. I’ll take K-State in another comeback win, 64-60.
FOLLOW on Twitter @bigjax3211