MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Twas 24 days ago when Juwan Staten made a transformative last-second shot in Waco, a basket that simultaneously beat Baylor 66-64 and jump-started West Virginia’s turnaround.
Come Saturday, the teams meet again at the WVU Coliseum with both occupying precarious spots on the NCAA bubble.
Staten’s game-winning reverse layup on Jan. 28 started West Virginia on a 4-2 stretch that included four wins over current RPI top-50 teams. Now the Mountaineers (15-11, 7-6) own a 66 RPI themselves, not presently good enough to grab an at-large big but certainly within drafting distance of earning one.
Baylor (17-9, 5-8) has gone 4-2 since the first meeting. It owns a better overall record than West Virginia and a far better RPI (No. 41), but that losing mark in Big 12 play won’t earn the Bears any back pats from the selection committee.
So, with two weeks left in the regular season, has the rematch essentially become an elimination game?
“We’ve only got five games left,” said Staten, named this week as a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award. “We know that we definitely have to get the ones at home in order to have a shot.”
Staten’s backcourt mate Eron Harris said the Mountaineers realize they have no margin for error.
“Every game is a must-win—it’s tournament time now,” he said.
Amid the regression of last Saturday’s 88-71 loss at Texas, Staten and Harris combined for 35 points, though it came on 11-of-31 combined shooting. The Mountaineers shot only 39 percent as a team, compared to 57 percent for Texas.
That loss dropped WVU to 4-9 against the RPI top 50 and into sixth place in the Big 12. The standings are noteworthy because the four teams that finish seventh or worst must play an opening-round game at the conference tournament. During the 17-year history of the Big 12 tournament, no team forced to play in the first round has ever pulled off the four-wins-in-four-days run necessary to win the title, and only four times has an opening-night team reached the championship game.
West Virginia continues swimming upstream because it failed to achieve much in the non-conference portion.
“We’ve got to win games,” said coach Bob Huggins, who hasn’t missed out on the NCAA in back-to-back seasons since his Cincinnati Bearcats settled for NIT bids in 1990 and 1991.
“I don’t think it’s any secret we’ve put ourselves behind the 8-ball. We won some games and got ourselves back in the hunt, and then we didn’t play very well at Texas.”
Staten was among the most unlikely of the 24 finalists for the Cousy honor considering he wasn’t on the bloated preseason watch list.
“I think he deserves it,” Huggins said. “I don’t watch as much basketball as a lot of people because I don’t have time to, but I don’t know anybody who’s playing at a higher level than he is now.”
The junior ranks second pin the Big 12 in scoring (18.1 points), second in assists (6.0), fifth in field-goal percentage (50.8 percent) and fifth in steals (1.31).
“He knows what areas we can attack because he studies film,” Huggins said. “He has put an enormous amount of time in.”