Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins leads the Jayhawks in scoring at 15 points per game as West Virginia visits Allen Fieldhouse.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Still armed with only nine scholarship players and carrying a string of 16 straight losses to ranked teams away from home, is West Virginia—even in its current rejuvenated state—capable of taking down an elite Kansas team in Lawrence?
“Win with no fear,” Bob Huggins said Friday. “That’s the attitude we have here.”
For years, the Mountaineers coach has impressed upon his teams at Cincinnati, K-State and now WVU that road underdogs have every right to expect a win as do the home favorites. And in the case of Saturday’s game at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks, rather appropriately, are sizable favorites. As in two-touchdown favorites.
Ranked No. 8 in the AP and No. 1 in the RPI, Kansas (18-5, 8-1) has won 110 consecutive home games against unranked visitors, and West Virginia (14-9, 6-4) stands to become the 111th barring a monumental surprise.
Then again, WVU has redirected its season and repaired its psyche with three consecutive Big 12 victories, perhaps equipping it to better handle what Kansas will bring.
“I think we are more prepared now,” Huggins said. “We have to control the game as best we possibly can. Make sure we don’t give them runout dunks and try to keep it manageable.”
Controlling the game begins with point guard Juwan Staten continuing what he has done all season—breaking down defenses with penetration, scoring at the rim acrobatically, pitching to shooters when the defense implodes, and accomplishing all this without turnovers.
With Staten vs. Naadir Thorpe seemingly the only positional matchup in WVU’s favor, the rest of the Mountaineers must out-perform their metrics to pull off an upset. That’s a steep order considering the problems presented by the Jayhawks’ freshmen phenoms Andrew Wiggins, 7-footer Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden Jr.
“The No. 1 pick in the draft, the No. 2 pick in the draft, and oh by the way, the other guy on the front line was a McDonald’s All-American,” Huggins said. “They’re very talented.
“When you look at, where are the weaknesses? They’ve got really good players and they’ve got lots of them.”
Tipoff: Saturday, 4 p.m. in Lawrence, Kan. (ESPN)
Records: The Jayhawks (18-5, 8-1) have taken some dents from the nation’s toughest schedule, losing at Florida, Colorado and Texas, and on a neural court to Villanova. But Kansas also has eight top-50 wins to its credit, including Duke, New Mexico and a sweep of Iowa State. KU is 9-1 at home, a mark sullied only by a 61-57 loss to San Diego State on Jan. 5. … The Mountaineers (14-9, 6-4) survived a wild second half against 21st-ranked Oklahoma—losing a 14-point lead before getting even on an Eron Harris 3 late—before eventually winning 91-86 in overtime.
RPIs: Kansas is No. 1 and WVU is No. 72.
Coach: Bill Self on Friday was labeled a Hall-of-Famer by the man he’ll be coaching against Saturday, ad with good reason, At age 51, Self has the best chance of anyone in the profession to challenge Coach K’s mountainous win total. He’s 524-169 overall, having taken three schools to a total of seven Elite Eights, including Tulsa, where he averaged nearly 25 wins in three seasons. His teams have been part of 15 consecutive NCAA tournaments and two Final Fours, with the 2008 national title representing the apex.
Kansas’ top players: Oddsmakers dramatically revamped KU’s odds of reaching the Final Four when Wiggins committed to Kansas over Kenucky, North Carolina and Florida State last May. Labeled a once-in-a-generation talent, Wiggins (15.9 points, 6.0 rebounds) has been stellar at times—see 22 points vs. Duke, 27 vs. Florida and 29 vs. Iowa State. Yet he remains a freshman, witness his seven-point, 2-of-12 shooting night in last week’s 81-69 loss at Texas. … The Cameroon native Embiid, who could trump Wiggins as the No. 1 pick, averages 10.9 points and 7.7 rebounds. He’s still raw, having started playing hoops only three years ago, but look polished enough in blocking eight Oklahoma State shots on Jan. 18. … Sophomore forward Perry Ellis (13.2 points, 6.7 rebounds) gets overlooked, but he’s a winner. … Selden (10.2 points) plays nearly 29 minutes a game.
WVU roster notes: Eron Harris made 6-of-11 from 3-point against Oklahoma and stands second in the Big 12 at 2.78 makes per game. He’s third in the conference in scoring (17.5). … Juwan Staten ranks second in the Big 12 in scoring (18.1), while leading in assists (5.96) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.85). After playing 45 minutes against Oklahoma, he’s averaging a league-high 37.3 per game.
Line: Kansas favored by 14.
Prediction: Kansas 83-66