MORGANTOWN, W. Va — It hardly balances out a season’s worth of travel hardships, but WVU enjoys at least a small edge today as Oklahoma State visits.
The Cowboys (19-6, 9-4 Big 12) are coming off a 68-67 double-overtime loss to Kansas on Wednesday night, whereas West Virginia hasn’t played since Monday’s 71-61 loss at Kansas State. Perhaps that explains why OSU is only a 3 1/2-point favorite despite being in the chase for the league title, while the Mountaineers realistically aren’t chasing anything higher than sixth-place.
Today’s five keys:
1. THE LAST TIME THEY MET …
Now, we point back to Jan. 26 and there’s Phil Forte looking like a pint-sized version of Jimmer Fredette, scoring 26 points when the Pokes pulled away for an 80-66 victory. But don’t overlook that WVU led 24-11 with under six minutes to go in the half. Sure, that’s small consolation to a Mountaineers bunch that eventually yielded 80 points that day, but for a team with a fragile confidence, perhaps it’s heartening to recall how they outplayed OSU for a chunk of the opening half … before collapsing.
2. FORTE FILLS IT UP
What do West Virginia and Tennessee Tech have in common? Those are the only two teams that have allowed Forte to score 20 or more points this season, though the freshman has been a consistent double-digit scorer.
Curious Forte fact: He entered the first meeting with WVU on an 8-of-31 five-game stretch from 3-point range, and since lighting up WVU, he has gone just 12-of-47.
The take from Huggins: “We seemingly cure everybody’s shooting problems.”
Beyond that, Huggins sounded at a loss as to why spot-up shooters (Brady Heslip, Will Spradling) have given the Mountaineers so much trouble in recent games.
“You don’t help off of ball-side guys, and we’ve done that 100 times it seems like,” the coach said. “That’s what weak side help is for. We, for whatever reason, have not followed the scouting report.”
WVU guard Jabarie Hinds said he and his teammates have been reminded constantly of Forte’s big output.
“In practice we’ve been working on certain ways to get over screens, how to read them (better). We’ve got to make him dribble the basketball — not just catch and shoot it.”
Curious Forte fact No. 2: He was a high school teammate of Marcus Smart’s, though the players — and OSU coach Travis Ford — insist Forte wasn’t offered as a tag-along.
“We probably went overboard to let all parents on both sides, and the coaches, know that I’m recruiting these guys separately,” Ford said. “I’m recruiting Phil Forte because I want him and I need him and yeah, we want Marcus, too — he just happens to be your teammate.”
3. GET SMART
This might be Marcus Smart’s only trip to Morgantown, as he’ll likely be a first-round pick should he enter this summer’s NBA draft.
As talented as Smart is at making plays and overmatching other guards with his length and strength, he had a mediocre game in the first matchup against WVU. He produced 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting with four assists and three steals and gave away a season-high seven turnovers.
In seven games since, Smart is averaging 19.5 points with a more favorable 28 assists to 21 turnovers.
4. DOWNTOWN MARKEL BROWN
Hard to fathom how Oklahoma State’s leading scorer manages to be overlooked nationally, but the 6-3 junior Brown has been every bit as essential as Smart. He’s shooting better than 39 percent on 3s, including a 7-of-10 night at Allen Fieldhouse. Along with scoring (15.9 points per game), he also brings rebounding (4.5), and with 21 blocks, he could wind up leading all Big 12 guards in that category.
“He’s probably as good an athlete as there is in the league,” said Huggins. And ESPN has the alley-oop highlights to prove it.
5. CLEAR EYES FOR HARRIS
West Virginia’s Eron Harris had a night to forget at K-State, and a night many K-State fans aren’t likely going to let him forget. He was held scoreless, attempted only two shots, fouled out in eight minutes and wept on the Mountaineers bench at the frustration of it all.
The freshman had not been held scoreless since a loss at Duquesne on Dec. 11, and he probably won’t be shutout today by the Cowboys — considering he scored 17 points o 6-of-10 shooting in Stillwater.