MANHATTAN, Kan. — There’s plenty of cause for sentimentality on Big Monday in the Little Apple, what with Bob Huggins returning after six seasons and Kansas State chasing its first Big 12 title in 36 years.
The Wildcats (20-5, 9-3) reside in a three-way tie for the conference lead, and they enter as 10-point favorites over West Virginia (13-12, 6-6), which is 1-10 against teams with winning records.
Follow the bouncing ball as we break down tonight’s matchup:
1. The last time they met …
In the most crushing loss of the season, West Virginia led by a point in Morgantown with 21 seconds left when Dominique Rutledge fouled K-State’s Shane Southwell on a ball-screen 20 feet from the basket.
Southwell, not only sank both free throws to put the Wildcats ahead 65-64, but he also swatted away Gary Browne’s runner at the horn. (You can rewatch the highlights below.)
While Southwell came up clutch with seven of his 17 points in the final 11 minutes, K-State superstar Rodney McGruder (who also finished with 17 points) didn’t score during the final 14:29, missing his last six shots.
Two other facets stand out from that first meeting: Eron Harris hitting an off-balance, double-clutch baseline jumper to give WVU a temporary lead with 25 seconds left, and Juwan Staten not playing at all. The transfer point guard was serving a de facto got-get-on-the-same-page suspension imposed by Huggins.
Along with the ill-timed foul by Rutledge, WVU hurt its cause by making only 12-of-22 free throws, lowlighted by Jabarie Hinds (a 70-percent foul shooter for the season) going 1-of-6.
Said WVU forward Deniz Kilicli: “Last time we lost by one, and they really didn’t beat us. We beat ourselves, which happens a lot.”
2. More on Southwell
Though the 6-foot-6 junior guard from Harlem, N.Y., is the Big 12′s No.2-ranked 3-point shooter at better than 44 percent, Southwell hadn’t been confident with his stroke of late. He broke out of that mini-slump Saturday by making 6-of-9 from deep in an 81-61 romp over Baylor, and gave props to head coach Bruce Weber.
“I have not been following through on my shots,” he said, “so Coach told me to warm up with one-hand form shooting.”
3. Point guard promotion
Though Angel Rodriguez made a ridiculously difficult late-game runner in the first matchup at WVU, the K-State point guard delivered an uneven performance — nine points, two assists, two steals and four turnovers.
The sophomore faces WVU a second time coming off his best game a a Wildcat — compiling 22 points, 10 assists, five rebounds, two steals and only two turnovers while dominating Baylor counterpart Pierre Jackson.
Bears coach Scott Drew sounded impressed: “Angel is phenomenal — that is an All-American out there. He is as good as you will find in college basketball.”
4. Big men toiling
So much for the preseason projections that WVU’s Aaric Murray and K-State’s Jordan Henriquez would be centerpieces in the middle.
Murray hasn’t been in the starting five since Jan. 5 and, thanks to foul trouble, his court time has fallen off drastically during the last four games. During that stretch, the 6-10 junior is averaging 15 minutes and has more fouls (11) than baskets (six).
The 6-11 Henriquez, the school’s career leader in blocks, returned to K-State’s starting five the past six games after a 12-game stint coming off the bench. He doubled his season averages with 10 points and 10 rebounds in Saturday’s bashing of Baylor.
5. Similar styles
Neither team plays at a breakneck pace: WVU ranking 224th nationally in possessions per game and K-State ranking 278th. And though both teams carry a reputation for being physical and disruptive, neither ranks among the Big 12′s upper half in field-goal percentage defense. Kansas State is sixth in the conference, allowing opponents to shoot .414, and WVU stands ninth (.433).
WVU leads the Big 12 in fouls committed per game (19.4) and the Wildcats rank fourth (17.5).
“They play like us, and on paper they’re a lot like us,” said Kilicli. “We play like that everyday. It will be a good game if we come to play, but you never know.”