MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — As to where the 14th-ranked West Virginia men’s basketball team could wind up in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments, well, the answers are right in front of them this week.
They come in the form of two games, against No. 3 Kansas (20-3, 9-1 Big 12) today and then on the road against top-ranked Baylor.
Sweep them and the Mountaineers (18-5, 6-4) are right back into the conversation as a solid No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Split them and there is really no harm done. Lose them both … that’s where things can get a little sticky for the Mountaineers.
In a perfect world, losing two games against two teams ranked in the top three in the country shouldn’t be a total buzzkill. Except here, two losses would put WVU at .500 in conference play. Texas Tech has already moved a half-game ahead of the Mountaineers in the Big 12 standings. It’s possible Oklahoma could catch WVU and the Sooners already have a win against the Mountaineers.
“This is obviously the time of year where you’ve got to be focused and locked in,” WVU guard Chase Harler said. “You can’t worry about what everyone else is doing. You have to go out and play well and win games. You can only hurt yourself by not playing well right now. There’s no one else to blame.”
The good news: It’s Kansas at the WVU Coliseum, where the Mountaineers are 5-2 against the Jayhawks and the two losses were by a combined 10 points. So, we can expect another physical and close game (maybe another classic) between the two schools.
“I saw an interview (Kansas coach Bill Self) did and he’s thinking it’s going to be crazy here, so we don’t want to disappoint Bill in any way shape or form,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “It’s generally a great crowd and generally, the students are really into it. Seemingly, when the students are into it, the rest of the crowd follows suit.”
As always, here’s what you need to know:
TV: ESPN+ (Online only, subscription needed) for the 7 p.m. tip-off. BETTING LINE: West Virginia is a 2-point favorite.
WHAT DOES BOB HUGGINS HAVE TO SAY?
The West Virginia coach spoke of how WVU and Kansas are in the early stages of building a budding rivalry. The two schools do meet quite a lot, including postseason play. This will be the 19th meeting since WVU joined the Big 12, in 2012. Kansas has been ranked in all 19 games, while WVU has been ranked in 12 of them. The 19 meetings is tied with Texas Tech for the most since joining the conference.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS
F–Emmitt Matthews Jr., Soph., 6-7, 210, 6.9 ppg. Shooting 40% from 3-point range over the last three games.
F–Oscar Tshiebwe, Fr., 6-9, 258, 11.5 ppg. Had 17 points and 17 rebounds in first meeting against Kansas.
F–Derek Culver, Soph., 6-10, 255, 10.8 ppg. Seven rebounds shy of 450 for his career.
G–Jermaine Haley, Sr., 6-7, 215, 9.4 ppg. Hit the game-winner on a drive to the basket the last time these two teams met in Morgantown.
G–Jordan McCabe, Soph., 6-0, 188, 3.2 ppg. Is shooting 79.2% from the foul line.
C–Udoka Azubuike, Sr., 7-0, 270, 13.0 ppg. Is shooting 75.9% from the floor this season.
G–Marcus Garrett, Jr., 6-5, 195, 9.2 ppg. Had 12 points and six assists in first meeting with WVU this season.
G–Devon Dotson, Soph., 6-2, 185, 18.0 ppg. The Big 12’s leading scorer.
G–Christian Braun, Fr., 6-6, 205, 5.0 ppg. Took over as a starter following the Kansas-Kansas State brawl on Jan. 21.
G–Ochai Agbaji, Soph., 6-5, 210, 10.3 ppg. Is shooting just 27% from 3-point range over the last four games.
FAVORITE WVU-K.U. MOMENT
For this one, we go back to Feb. 16, 2015. WVU guard Juwan Staten took in the inbounds pass from Gary Browne and raced up the court for a spinning lay-up with 3.3 seconds left and then raced back down the court to change Perry Ellis’ lay-up attempt that could have won the game for the Jayhawks.
THREE GOOD QUESTIONS
Can West Virginia defend Kansas’ lob play to Azubuike? To be fair here, no team this season has really shut the play down and it’s because few teams have the speed on the perimeter to keep Dotson and Garrett from driving into the lane.
“We know how to stop it,” Tshiebwe said. “Our guards have to do a really good job of stopping their penetration. If we stop them from going to the rim, we’ll make it a lot easier. If we move really quickly (on defense), we can win this game.”
The interesting thing to watch here will be Tshiebwe’s and Culver’s reactions if Kansas’ guards are able to drive inside. Do they step up and try to cut the drives to the basket off (their coaches have told them repeatedly not to do that) or do they stay back and allow a run at the rim? It’s a double-edged sword, because giving up a lay-up is not a good thing, but neither is leaving Azubuike all alone for the lob dunk.
Will Sean McNeil be back in action? The sophomore guard has sat out the last two games with the flu. He has been back to practice since, so there is at least the potential he could see some action, possibly in certain sets where Huggins would like an extra shooter on the floor.
“He’s weak,” Huggins said. “He didn’t eat much for three days and laid around. He may be able to go a little bit.”
Who hits outside shots for the Mountaineers tonight? The guess here will be senior guard Chase Harler. In five games against the Jayhawks over his career, Harler is shooting 60% from the floor (12 of 20) and 44% from three (4 of 9).
This is the ultimate test to see if WVU is truly a world-beater inside the Coliseum, where the Mountaineers are 12-0 so far this season. Both teams match-up well as far as size. Kansas has better speed on the perimeter, but a sold-out game in a must-win situation is hard to overlook. I’ll go with WVU and a cover, 65-60.
JUSTIN’S SEASON PREDICTIONS AGAINST THE SPREAD: 7-11.