LAWRENCE, Kan. — On the eve of the 196th consecutive sellout at hallowed Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas is once more angling for an NCAA No. 1 seed, while West Virginia is merely angling for some self respect.
Those polar interests collide today when the sixth-ranked Jayhawks (24-4, 12-3) host the Mountaineers (13-15, 6-9) at 2 p.m. Eastern. Winners of five straight, Kansas remains tied for the Big 12 lead, whereas WVU needs help to improve its current seventh-place standing.
A five-point primer for today’s matchup, which casts WVU in the role of spoiler:
1. Getting up for The Phog
Wednesday night’s brain-cramp of a final possession was still fresh for West Virginia, resulting in a 65-62 loss to Baylor — yet another close game the Mountaineers have grown accustomed to losing.
How could WVU reignite its enthusiasm for the pending trip to Allen Fieldhouse?
“We can’t just go to Kansas, be flat and not care,” said forward Kevin Noreen. “Going to Phog, it’s a treat. If we had won this game I’d be a lot more excited, but we’re not going to stop, we’re going to keep fighting.”
Since the first flickers of West Virginia’s entrance into the Big 12, Noreen said players discussed their visit Lawrence, Kan.
“Even last year when we first heard we were going to the Big 12, it was ‘Wow, we get to go to Phog.’ Great. Probably one of the hardest places to play in the country. Great. Let’s go down there and let’s compete and let’s get a win,” he said.
2. Crowd control
WVU coach Bob Huggins lauded Kansas fans for making Allen Fieldhouse one of the nation’s most engaging home-court environments. The Jayhawks are 159-8 under Bill Self at The Phog.
“A lot of noise — it’s loud, I mean, really loud,” Huggins said. “The impressive thing about the Kansas fans is if they’re playing West Virginia or if they’re playing Kansas State or if they’re playing Prairie View, they’re going to have 18,000-plus in there. They keep it full. They get into that Rock Chalk Jayhawk thing, which I never knew what that meant, but we’re going to hear that a bunch.
“They’re in it from tipoff until the end of the game. They do a great job supporting their team, and I think their team feeds off that enthusiasm. And there are some of (their fans) that are a little nasty, to be honest with you. There’s some of them that think if they pay $35 for a ticket, that you’re allowed to say anything you want to anybody you want.”
Noreen insisted WVU is prepared to play and won’t let the crowd decide the outcome.
“Yeah they’ve got a lot of fans, but they don’t have knives and they don’t have guns and they can’t come on the court,” he said.
3. Getting striped
Kansas hasn’t played since Monday’s controversial finish at Iowa State, a game in which the Big 12 admitted the officials made errors. At the end of regulation, Jayhawks guard Elijah Johnson benefited from a no-call on what should have been a charge and subsequently went to the foul line for the tying free throws after a questionable call on the floor-bound Cyclones player he ran over.
Huggins discussed the situation on his Thursday night MetroNews call-in show and said “no doubt it should have been a charge.” He also theorized officials wield such a large impact they should be subject to postgame questioning by the media, same as players and coaches.
“Why didn’t those three guys have to go to the pressroom?” Huggins asked. “We don’t do a very good job of executing at the end of the game with 17.9 seconds to go (against Baylor). Well, I think Juwan Staten showed up in front of the media, and I show up in front of the media, which are the two people responsible.
“In a situation like (Kansas at Iowa State), why don’t officials have to go? I think that’s dead wrong. People say, ‘Well, they’re not a part of the game.’ That’s ridiculous. They are so much a part of the game. They’re more a part of the game than coaches are. Why wouldn’t they have to show up and explain why they called this and why they called that? I think that’s fair.”
Kansas coach Bill Self sounded like he comes down on the side of less transparency. He was critical of the conference issuing a statement after KU pulled out the 108-96 overtime win in Ames.
“We benefited from a no-call in a big-time game,” he told the Kansas City Star. “And I’m not gonna make light of that. We were the beneficiary of that one play. Now there were other plays in that game, too. But we were the beneficiary of the one play that received all the attention because it was game point.”
“I am concerned that now, have we opened up Pandora’s box that now anytime something happens in the future, now we have to make a comment about it? I always thought you handled your situations in-house.”
4. The last time Kansas and WVU met …
KU stretched is winning steak to 18 by edging WVU 61-56 in Morgantown on Jan. 28 (and promptly embarked upon a three-game losing streak after leaving). Jeff Withey and Travis Releford, both fifth-year seniors, scored 15 points each for Kansas, which looked dominant for portions of the first half only to find itself in a dogfight later.
“We got off to a great start and putted it around to go up eight at halftime when it should have been 12 or 14,” Self said. “I know they cut it to one in the second half and then we just kind of hung on. I know we played pretty well for about 15 minutes and then labored the last 25. We turned the ball over and their pressure did bother us.”
Aaric Murray had a taste of successes that night, scoring 17 points and asserting that he wanted to return to WVU for his senior season. In the eight games since, he has averaged six points, and Murray failed to score at all Wednesday in four quiet minutes against Baylor.
Kansas leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 35.5 percent shooting. (That’s been a trademark of Self’s nine seasons at KU, where eight times the Jayhawks have ranked among the top 10 in defense.) For balance, Kansas ranks 28th nationally in field-goal shooting at 47.1 percent.
Kansas is led in scoring by Ben McLemore, whose 15.9 scoring average is on pace to surpass Danny Manning’s 1985 freshman mark of 14.6. The Jayhawks boast balance scoring behind Withey (13.5), Releford (12.4) and Elijah Johnson (10.2), whose 39-point outburst at Iowa State lifted him to double figures.
WVU, of course, has no scorers averaging in double-digits — freshman Eron Harris tops the Mountaineers at 9.3 points per game.