MORGANTOWN — We welcome you back to the WVU Coliseum, where No. 6 West Virginia will take its highest national ranking of the season for a spin against No. 3 Baylor, which is coming off its first loss of the season, which also caused the Bears’ first drop of the season in the AP poll.
It creates an interesting scenario, in terms of a late-season featured matchup with so much on the line for both teams. The Bears can secure the Big 12 title with a win. WVU stays mathematically alive for the conference crown with a win.
Would Baylor fall off the one line in the NCAA Tournament with a loss? Probably not, but the Mountaineers would certainly have a solid case to be included on the one line with a win. Of course, there is still much to be settled with the Big 12 Tournament upcoming, where both schools will make their final cases for NCAA seeding.
WVU head coach Bob Huggins believes the game could be an opportunity for junior forward Derek Culver to make his own case for Big 12 Player of the Year. It’s been assumed for much of the season that honor would go to Baylor guard Jared Butler, but Huggins said you may want to hold the phone on that assumption.
“First of all, I’m not ready to give (Butler) the player of the year,” he said. “I think the guy that we have that’s averaging a double-double and has dominated the league has got a pretty good shot at it.”
So, we’ve got a lot on the line today, but we begin with a deeper look into what makes Baylor tick.
It’s easy to say the Bears maybe have the best player in Butler and surrounded him with experienced guards in MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell, and also an experienced defensive standout like Mark Vital.
Huggins believes Baylor’s overall chemistry and teamwork are the secrets to its success.
“It’s kind of amazing that you can put four guys on the floor who are that unselfish and they kind of look out for each other,” he said.
Maybe more than anything else, what Baylor has accomplished this season — except during its 71-58 loss at Kansas on Saturday, which was just the Bears’ second game after coming off a three-week COVID-19 break — is excel from 3-point range.
The 3-point line has been discussed for years on how it’s changed the game, but Baylor has taken that to another level this season. Put it this way, the Bears are shooting an astounding 42.1% from 3-point range, which is better than what Kansas State is shooting from the field.
It isn’t just one guy, either, with Baylor. Four players have at least 31 threes. Matthew Mayer averages 14 minutes played per game and he’s added 18 3-pointers. It’s a barrage of guys spread out all over the floor who are more than capable of knocking down multiple shots from behind the arc, and when Baylor coach Scott Drew brings in guys off the bench, they can hit them, too.
“It’s a great weapon and they’re going to bring in a four-man (Mayer, a power forward), who shoots it as well as the guards do,” Huggins said. “We’ve got to guard them. I think we’re well aware of that. We’ve got to pick them up a little earlier and we have to do a really good job with ball screens.”
The significance of Baylor’s shooting: The last time a Big 12 team shot the ball that well from 3-point range was Oklahoma during the 2015-16 season, that saw the Sooners advance to the Final Four.
The asterisk here, though, is Baylor only hit 6 of 26 (23.1%) from behind the line against Kansas and was 8 of 25 (32%) before that in a comeback win against Iowa State. The Bears are coming off their third COVID-19 pause of the season and the latest one lasted three weeks.
Is the lack of playing time making a difference? Is Baylor the same team now it was a month ago? Those are two questions that could come into play today and are certainly worth keeping an eye on.
So, here we go, it’s West Virginia-Baylor for the first and only time during the regular season. Here’s what you need to know:
TV: ESPN (Comcast 35, 850 HD; DirecTV 206; DISH 140) for the 5 p.m. tip-off. BETTING LINE: Baylor is a 4-point favorite.
WHAT DOES BOB HUGGINS HAVE TO SAY?
The West Virginia head coach is approaching his 900th career win (Huggins is at 898) and shared some stories of advice he received over the years from Bob Knight, who is at 902 wins.
Huggins also introduced the term “newspaper drink,” in a story he shared about having lunch one day with former Oklahoma State coach Henry Iba, who apparently would hold up a newspaper in front of his glass of bourbon and if he could still see through the drink, it meant there wasn’t enough bourbon in the glass.
“I’ve been blessed,” Huggins said. “Very few people my age got to spend time with those kinds of guys. I treasure it.”
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS
WEST VIRGINIA (17-6, 10-4 Big 12)
F–Derek Culver, 6-10, jr., 15.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg
F–Jalen Bridges, 6-7, fr., 5.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg
F–Emmitt Matthews Jr., 6-7, jr., 7.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg
G–Deuce McBride, 6-2, soph., 15.6 ppg, 4.5 apg
G–Sean McNeil, 6-3, jr., 11.7 ppg, 1.9 rpg
BAYLOR (18-1, 10-1 Big 12)
F–Flo Thamba, 6-10, jr., 4.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg
F–Mark Vital, 6-5, sr., 5.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg
G–Jared Butler, 6-3, jr., 16.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg
G–Davion Mitchell, 6-2, jr., 13.4 ppg, 5.6 apg
G–MaCio Teague, 6-4, sr, 14.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg
Since the 2015-16 season, WVU is 4-1 inside the Coliseum against Baylor, who was ranked nationally in the top five for two of those losses.
The thinking here is Baylor may not be back to full speed just yet after a long bout with COVID-19. It’s one thing to get back to practice, but something entirely different to get used to actually playing in games again. WVU’s defense looked improved in a win against Kansas State, but Baylor is certainly not Kansas State.
If WVU was ever going to make a national statement, this would be an opportune time to do so. WVU wins straight up, 76-72.
Justin’s season picks against the spread: 8-12-1.