Ben Queen/MetroNews photo
Point guard Juwan Staten closes out a fantastic regular season as West Virginia hosts Kansas on Saturday.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Saturday’s regular-season finale features a marquee visitor in No. 8 Kansas and a “Gold Rush” marketing promotion expected to brighten the sold-out WVU Coliseum. Yet West Virginia won’t be staging senior day ceremonies, because the roster doesn’t have any.
Well, not really.
“We’ve got two managers and a student trainer,” said coach Bob Huggins, who would certainly dress all three if they could help defend against the Jayhawks.
Big 12 champions for an unfathomable 10th consecutive season, Kansas (23-7) ranks third nationally in field-goal shooting, 16th in points-per-possession and 12th in offensive efficiency. Those are scary metrics for what is turning out to be one of Huggins’ softest defensive units.
West Virginia ranks 194th out of 351Division I teams in defensive efficiency, and to put that in deeper context, it sits 82nd out of 96 teams in the power-eight RPI leagues (Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 Big East ACC, Atlantic 10, SEC and American). While Huggins has repeatedly pinned the defensive lapses on youth, he has grown tired of the excuse.
“I’d feel a lot better if we had 25 wins with this young team,” he said.
Even more daunting, Kansas has won five of six entering Saturday—keeping alive its hopes of an NCAA No. 1 seed—while WVU has dropped four of five—squashing its hopes of an NCAA at-large bid.
From where do the Mountaineers draw optimism for an upset? Oddly enough, from their 83-69 road loss to Kansas on Feb. 8. Despite the lopsided final score, West Virginia trailed by four points with five minutes left.
“It was a four-point game with four minutes to go and I don’t think we played particularly well,” Huggins said. “Terry (Henderson) probably played the worst game he’s ever played here. I thought we could play a lot better.”
That day Kansas had 7-footer Joel Embiid collecting 11 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. He won’t play this time around, said coach Bill Self, who plans to rest the freshman phenom (and potential No. 1 overall pick) and his aching back.
Not that Embiid’s absence leaves Self short-handed. The Jayhawks still have Perry Ellis, Memphis transfer Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor for an inside presence.
“It’s an awful thing isn’t it? You lose probably the No. 1 pick in the draft and you replace him with a former McDonald’s All-American,” Huggins deadpannned before Friday’s practice. “They’re talented everywhere. They’re so big and strong inside. They threw four (big men) at us out there and now they’re down to only three.”
Tipoff: Saturday, noon, in Morgantown (ESPN)
Records: The Jayhawks (23-7, 14-3) are 5-5 in true road games after falling at Oklahoma State 72-65 a week ago. Since then, they bounced back by ripping Texas Tech 82-57 in Lawrence. … The Mountaineers (16-14, 8-9) lost 72-62 at Oklahoma on Wednesday night and need a victory to have any hopes of securing a first-round bye at the Big 12 tournament.
RPIs: Kansas is No. 2 and WVU is No. 86.
Coach: Bill Self (530-171 in 21 seasons overall) keeps the Kansas program humming, so much so the Jayhawks own a three-game lead in the nation’s highest-rated RPI conference. He’s 323-66 at KU, building upon success he enjoyed at Illinois, Tulsa and Oral Roberts. He has coached in seven Elite Eights, 15 consecutive NCAA tournaments and two Final Fours, highlighted by the 2008 national title.
Kansas’ top players: Though he hasn’t lived up to stratospheric expectations, Andrew Wiggins (16.0 points, 5.8 rebounds) warrants consideration for Big 12 player of the year, which will be announced Sunday. The 6-8 freshman forward will make his final push by returning to the state where he played his final two seasons of him school ball at Huntington Prep. Wiggins scored 19 points on 6-of-14 shooting against the Mountaineers in Lawrence. Said WVU forward Kevin Noreen: “Ben McLemore was pretty explosive last year, but Wiggins is even longer than him and more explosive.” … Forward Perry Ellis (13.2 points 6.4 rebounds) figures to be featured in the low post with Joel Embiid sidelined. And swingman Wayne Selden Jr., who scored 17 points on 3-of-5 3-point shooting vs. WVU last time, benefits when defenses focus on Wiggins.
WVU roster notes: Eron Harris endured a clunker of a game at Oklahoma, shooting 2-of-9 with three turnovers and just five points—only the third time he was limited to single digits all season. He obviously needs to approach or surpass his 17.6-per-game average for WVU to have a prayer Saturday. … Point guard Juwan Staten (18.2 points, 5.8 assists and 5.9 rebounds) saw his Big 12 POY chances fade with the recent losing streak, but he has been the league’s most consistent playmaker. … Remi Dibo has made 2-of-13 shots in his last two games and failed to get to the foul line in either. … Devin Williams produced 14 points and 12 rebounds in the loss at OU, his second straight double-double. He could stand a better chance Saturday with Embiid’s shot-blocking presence missing.
Line: Kansas favored by 4
Prediction: Kansas 79-72