KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As a string of reporters inquired about his recently injured knee, Texas forward Jonathan Holmes pronounced himself healthy, agile and sound. His bigger pain? Questions about the Longhorns’ mindset entering the Big 12 tournament.
Equipped with a 22-9 record, a No. 34 RPI and a coach no longer on the hotseat, Texas has done enough to secure an NCAA tournament bid regardless of how it performs at the Sprint Center. But Thursday night’s quarterfinal opponent, West Virginia (17-14), is viewed as a talented and desperate team that carries more incentive and fire, especially after losing to Texas twice during the regular season.
The circumstances seem ideal for a Longhorns lull.
“We’re not just coming out here like it’s a practice game and knowing that we’re in the NCAA tournament,” Holmes said. “We’re playing for something too—we’re playing for a Big 12 championship.”
Averaging 12.9 points per game, the 6-foot-8 Holmes fronts a balanced lineup that has waylaid West Virginia 80-69 in Morgantown and 88-71 in Austin. His dangerous 3-point range thrives in late-game situations, as evidenced by his OT-forcing jumper against WVU last season and his buzzer-beater that upset K-State two months ago.
He’s also one of the top rebounders on one of the league’s best rebounding teams, an advantage Texas exploited mightily against the Mountaineers. But since their last meeting, Texas has lost four of six, including a 59-53 upset in Lubbock that served as the only win for Texas Tech since Feb. 12.
The slump has been marked by teams sagging into the lane and daring the Longhorns’ outside shooters to make 3s. (Texas is next-to-last in the Big 12 by making 32 percent of its 3-point tries.) Guard Javan Felix, whose stellar games against WVU far surpass his season averages, has only 12 points in his last three games combined while shooting 5-for-26.
Asked how opponents should scout the Texas shooters these days, Felix joked, “Back up off of ‘em.”
Will West Virginia’s defense follow suit and pack the lane as other UT opponents have done? Coach Bob Huggins hinted this week that WVU required some strategic changes after giving up an average of 84 points to Texas this season.
We’ll see if those changes give the Mountaineers a fighting chance the third time around, and if Texas—with its NCAA ticket punched—will show the same amount of fight.
BIG 12 QUARTERFINALS
Who: No. 3 seed Texas (22-9) vs. No. 6 West Virginia (17-14)