Rush The Weekend: West Virginia Enters a Crucial StretchPosted by Brian Goodman on February 7th, 2014
There’s been no shortage of intrigue in the Big 12 this season. Whether you want to discuss Kansas’ future lottery picks and national title hopes, Texas’ resurrection, Baylor’s free-fall, Oklahoma State’s dive, or the resilience of Iowa State, you don’t have to look very far to find any of the nation’s biggest stories in college hoops; you could just look at this conference. But if all of those plot lines aren’t enough for you, yet another Big 12 team could muscle itself into the fray this weekend: the West Virginia Mountaineers.
When Bob Huggins’ team wrapped up non-conference play back on December 29, it had very little to write home about. A handful of wins over bad teams kept them afloat, but there was no NCAA Tournament resume to speak of because of losses to the only relevant teams on their slate (Wisconsin, Missouri, Gonzaga, Purdue and Virginia Tech). Those defeats put them on the ropes earlier than many expected, and to boot, they dropped four of those games by seven points or less. When the calendar turned, they had a resume that was considerably worse than their statistical profile, which is something that you don’t see very often.
After two more unimpressive victories, a stretch hit when West Virginia dropped four of five games and put their Tournament hopes in dire straits. While none of the losses were debilitating on their own, they didn’t help matters either. Since then, however, the Mountaineers have bounced back with consecutive wins over Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma. Juwan Staten has been an absolute workhorse, averaging 40.5 minutes per game in Big 12 play (thanks to playing 44 and 45 minutes in West Virginia’s two overtime games) and scoring 18.3 points per contest, while Eron Harris and Terry Henderson have added the firepower necessary to offset WVU’s suspect defense and rebounding. The team has made some moves within the conference on its way to a 5-4 record in league play, but its season could be defined by a three-game stretch that begins tomorrow in Lawrence with games against Iowa State and Texas to follow.
The Mountaineers aren’t back on the bubble yet, but we could be singing a different tune after Saturday’s battle in Allen Fieldhouse (3:00 CST, ESPN). Harris and Henderson will have a chance to take advantage of the Jayhawks’ shaky perimeter defense, but when it comes to having success in The Phog, it’s much easier said than done. Meanwhile, Naadir Tharpe will look to keep up his improved play and Andrew Wiggins will try to shake off a mini-slump that has seen him shoot just 24 percent from the floor over his last two games.
A couple other big games on tap for Saturday:
- Texas at Kansas State (12:30 CST, ESPN3) – The resurgent Longhorns, now firmly off the bubble, will try to keep their seven-game winning streak alive in Manhattan. The match-up to watch for will be the 265-pound Thomas Gipson battling the 285-pound Cameron Ridley for position in the paint. That’s a lot of beef. In the backcourt, Javan Felix should return after missing Tuesday’s win against TCU with a mild concussion, and he’ll pair up with Isaiah Taylor to try to get the best of Marcus Foster and Will Spradling.
- Baylor at Oklahoma (6:00 CST, ESPN2) – The Sooners return to the warm confines of the Lloyd Noble Center after facing a major time crunch to get to Morgantown in time for Wednesday’s game against West Virginia. For all the talk about Oklahoma’s efficient attack (1.16 PPP, a mark that trails only Kansas in league play), the key for the Sooners has been Ryan Spangler’s work on the glass. The sophomore sat out a large chunk of the first half against West Virginia with foul trouble, but still finished the game with nine rebounds and leads the conference with 10.1 boards per game. One would figure that he’ll be challenged by the big front line of Isaiah Austin and Rico Gathers, but Baylor’s interior defense (or lack thereof) has been one of the biggest disappointments of their season.