MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Is the Texas matchup as daunting for West Virginia as it appeared during the regular season? Well, considering that the Longhorns aren’t shrinking and the Mountaineers aren’t growing, then yes, it is.
Between Cameron Ridley, Conner Lammert and Prince Ibeh—the Texas trio who stand 6-foot-9 or taller—they made 20-of-29 shots against West Virginia. Small wonder then that UT coasted 80-69 in Morgantown and looked even more commanding in taking the rematch 88-71. But, hey, as All-Big 12 point guard Juwan Staten reminded us Monday, “It’s hard to beat a team three times.”
When the teams square off late Thursday night in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals, West Virginia will be clinging to more than cliché.
For instance, there’s hope within the Mountaineers camp that the Devin Williams who has produced three consecutive double-doubles will wage more competitive war than he did previously. The freshman’s puny two-game totals against that Texas beef? Try 2-of-12 shooting for four points and three rebounds.
The Feb. 15 loss in Austin featured a glaring 46-14 scoring discrepancy in the paint, while the Horns’ edge in rebounding was nearly as broad, 41-26.
But Williams’ recent work has shown a rebirth, specifically his 22 points and 13 rebounds in Saturday’s upset of Kansas.
“That was probably one of his poorer games (in Austin), but I feel like he’s playing better now,” said coach Bob Huggins. “I thought he was better Saturday than he’s been all year. Scored it through contact better.”
Williams might not need to shoot 8-of-10 like he did against Kansas, but he needs to threaten the defense with his midrange game enough to unclog driving lanes for Staten and WVU’s pick-and-rollers. While helping forge Saturday’s upset, Williams looked comfortable swishing a baseline jumper from inches inside the 3-point line and drawing contact from late-arriving defenders.
“Devin’s the best guy we have if you’re talking about trying to drag those bigs away from the basket,” Huggins said. “He’s probably our most consist shooter 15- to 17-foot range.”
Williams is just one component, though, to West Virginia’s third-time charm. Team defense was so woeful that Texas shot 52 percent and 57 percent in its wins. Whether it was Isaiah Taylor making floaters in the lane or 35-percent shooter Javan Felix sinking 15-of-29 shots, the Longhorns’ guard tandem riddled the Mountaineers for key buckets.
“The team that wins usually gets the most easy baskets, generally,” Huggins said. “They’ve gotten a bunch of easy baskets against us.”
While Texas (22-9) has an NCAA bid sewn up, West Virginia (17-14) is likely NIT-bound unless it wins the Big 12 tournament. So there’s extra incentive on the underdogs’ side, along with the law of averages.
“We played two of our worse games against the year against Texas,” Staten said. “It has us thinking that we’re due for a good game against them.”