It’s Big Monday in Morgantown, though not nearly as big as WVU fans envisioned before the season, when this showdown against Kansas projected to be the highlight of the Big 12 schedule.
The Jayhawks (18-1, 6-0) have done their part by grinding out win after win in search of a ninth straight conference banner, but West Virginia (9-10, 2-4) is beleaguered and mired in mediocrity, sporting a 1-8 record against the RPI top 100.
With a capacity crowd expected for tonight’s 9 p.m. tipoff at the WVU Coliseum, can the Mountaineers put together the kind of complete effort necessary to take down the Jayhawks?
1. The IQ test
Let’s play “Match the Quote to the Coach,” shall we?
No. 1 — “We had a timeout where we were going to run a set against the zone, and I couldn’t even get my guys on the right side of the floor. … I can’t get these guys on the right side of the floor, and they know it. I don’t know what goes through their heads.”
No. 2 — “I don’t know how I can say this without being negative, but I don’t think we can play with less basketball intellect in certain situations than what we did.”
Quote No. 1 belonged to Bob Huggins, bemoaning West Virginia’s 80-66 loss at Oklahoma State on Saturday. The second came from Bill Self minutes after Kansas beat Oklahoma 67-54 later the same day. By these words alone, you’d presume that fans packing the WVU Coliseum tonight will watch two brain-dead teams engaging in 40 minutes of ataxia. But we know better, and more precisely, we know Kansas knows better.
Though Self frets over the mental breakdowns that could get Kansas bounced out of the NCAA tourney, he’s miles away from Huggins’ current state of despair. WVU’s coach alternates between brooding and boiling these days, languishing over a 9-10 record that makes the NIT feel like a pipe dream. (The last time Self had a team under .500 after 19 games? The Oral Roberts crew of 1994-95. For Huggins, the last time was all the way back in 1984-85 at Akron.)
Both coaches became legends because they demand excellence and squash out ineptitude, but for this season at least, Huggins clearly has more squashing to do.
2. Block party
It’s tough to shoot over KU’s Long Arm of Lane, 7-footer Jeff Withey, who needs only 11 blocks to officially “Ostertag” the Jayhawks’ career record. The mark could fall Monday night given the way WVU’s guards drive into traffic and the struggles of WVU’s big men to finish chippies around the basket.
Consider the plight of Oklahoma’s Romero Osby on Saturday, the 6-foot-8 forward essentially neutered after having his first shot deflected by Withey. A 19-point scorer, Osby finished 4-of-16 shooting at Allen Fieldhouse and was not too proud to credit Withey.
“(Withey) always bothers people, but I think I kind of let it get in my head that I had missed a couple of shots,” said Osby, who connected on 11-of-18 shots in two meetings against WVU this season. “I was making everything in warmups and I thought I was going to have a great game, but sometimes it happens like that.
“He does it with everybody and he makes it very tough as we go to the basket. He has good timing. I tried to get him off the floor with pump fakes and he stays down.”
Along with ranking second nationally at 4.3 blocks per game, giving him more blocks than six other Big 12 teams, Withey has refined his offensive moves to the tune of 13.0 points per game and a 548 shooting percentage.
3. Stripe the Coliseum
West Virginia pitched the same promotion during football season, resulting in a neat stadium aesthetic and the highest-scoring game of the Geno Smith’s career. The WVU marketing department would love a repeat, though we’re pretty sure Huggins would suffer a second heart attack if his team scored on 10-of-12 possessions.
4. Fabulous freshman
With four seniors in its lineup — three of them the five-year variety — Kansas has an experienced nucleus, but the Jayhawks’ best NBA prospect is freshman guard Ben McLemore. His team-leading 16.2 points-per-game clip is on pace to surpass Danny Manning’s freshman scoring record.
KU’s 17-game winning streak exists because McLemore scored 33 points against Iowa State on Jan. 9, hitting a 3-point bank shot to force overtime. McLemore also helps Kansas rank 19th nationally with a 48-percent shooting percentage. That puts the Jayhawks 296 spots ahead of WVU.
5. Will turnovers tell the tale?
Kansas ranks 42nd nationally in offensive efficiency, well above WVU at 179, but the Jayhawks average more turnovers (13.1 to 12.4). Elijah Johnson has been the main culprit with 60 turnovers, not what Self wants out of his point guard.
The Jayhawks survived 19 turnovers in a 74-66 win at Ohio State and 15 more during a 64-59 comeback at Texas. That game in Austin, in which KU trailed by 11 in the second half, might provide the template for West Virginia’s upset hopes.