Following West Virginia’s final nonconference tuneup, guard Tarik Phillip mulled whether to drive home for Christmas. Regardless of where he spent his break, he knew he’d spend it watching video cutups of Oklahoma State.
“It’s go time,” Phillip said a week before the Big 12 opener. “Already got the film uploaded to our phones.”
No. 11 West Virginia (11-1), seemingly impatient to play stiffer competition, hopes to extend a seven-game roll when it visits Oklahoma State (10-2) on Friday.
And yes, the Mountaineers are all too aware of coach Brad Underwood sitting on the opposing bench. His 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin club ambushed West Virginia 70-56 in the NCAA opener last nine months ago and came within a hair of beating Notre Dame for the Sweet 16.
“You saw what they did to us in the tournament,” said Mountaineers guard Teyvon Myers. “Can you imagine what the fellows are thinking right now? Can you imagine what the locker room will be like when we play Oklahoma State? We’re going to be ready — trust me.”
Myers, among seven Mountaineers scoring better than eight points per game, had watched Oklahoma State play several times even before receiving the scout video. (“They’re playing up the line, trying to take everything away,” he apprised last week.)
Given the deep rotation deployed by Bob Huggins, it’s anyone’s guess who’ll make the key plays game-to-game. Could be one of the versatile forwards, Esa Ahmad (12.9 points, 4.8 rebounds) or Nathan Adrian (10.5 points, 6.3 rebounds). Could be those ever-harassing guards — Jevon Carter (9.8 points, 4.4 assists, 3.3 steals) or Daxter Miles (9.4 points, 50 percent from 3) or Phillip (8.8 points, 2.8 assists).
Along with routing Wichita State and Georgetown, OSU lost a double-digit lead in a 71-70 setback at Maryland. The only unimpressive showing so far was a 107-75 loss to No.9 North Carolina in Hawaii.
The Cowboys enter league play already on the cusp of matching last season’s win total. Then again, the 12-20 swan song of former coach Travis Ford marked the program’s lowest point since 1987.
The rejuvenating impact of Underwood and, more crucially, the return to health of guards Jawun Evans and Phil Forte, have this team looking NCAA tournament-worthy. The point guard Evans (20.2 points, 4.6 assists, 2.5 steals) is impactful again after missing the second half of last year’s Big 12 round-robin with a shoulder injury. Forte (13.1 points) is once more combing the perimeter after missing the final 29 games with an elbow injury, though his 34-percent 3-point accuracy currently pales next to Evans (56 percent).
Sophomore swingman Jeffrey Carroll (16.2 points, 7.3 rebounds), a 6-foot-6 sophomore, has nearly doubled his production.
Not that the Pokes rely on running pretty offense. Underwood has dialed up the defensive pressure in a nod to what Huggins accomplished with “Press Virginia.” As the Mountaineers pace Division I in steals (13.9) and forced turnovers (26.2), Oklahoma State ranks top five in both categories.
“Both teams will get after it on the defensive end,” Forte said. “It’ll be a bloodbath, for sure.”
No. 11 West Virginia (11-1) vs. Oklahoma State (10-2)
Tipoff: Friday, 4 p.m. Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Oklahoma (ESPN2)
RPIs: West Virginia 48, Oklahoma State 39
Quoting the Cowboys: “We’re prepared, I think. I hope. We’ve played more road games than anybody (in the Big 12). We’ve played bluebloods. We’ve played in front of 17,000 at Maryland. Played in front of 15,000 at Wichita State. I think we’re prepared.” — Brad Underwood
Prediction: West Virginia 77-75