MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In dissecting two losses this season by a combined five points, West Virginia’s coaching staff emphasizes a commonality.
Deflections, or rather the lack of them.
The No. 7 Mountaineers, whose nonstop pressure defense typically produces nearly 50 deflections per game, managed only 39 in a Nov. 25 loss to Temple and 32 during Tuesday’s 77-76 overtime defeat at Texas Tech.
“We didn’t get any deflections, so we didn’t get any live-ball turnovers,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins. “It’s hard to deflect the pass if you don’t bring your hands above your head. Texas Tech threw it out of the trap before there actually was a trap, but if you get your hands up, they’ve still got to throw it over your hands, which gives you time to make rotations.”
After generating a season-low 13 turnovers in Lubbock, Huggins’ squad seeks to regain its edge Saturday against TCU. Though both teams stand 12-2 overall and 1-1 in Big 12 play, West Virginia was picked to challenge Kansas for the conference title while coaches slotted the Frogs to finish last. Under Jamie Dixon, however, TCU’s rebuilding effort shifted into warp-speed, resulting in a No. 30 RPI entering the weekend. That’s 23 spots higher than the Mountaineers.
Dixon, who owned a 12-7 record against WVU across his 13-year tenure as Pitt’s coach, should expect plenty of intensity from fans — as well as the Mountaineers’ defense, which leads the nation by forcing 24.8 turnovers.
“Their turnover numbers are dramatic, to say the least,” Dixon said. “We’ve been working on a lot of drills and try and improve in that area. We’ve been a low-turnover team all year until the last two games.”
Those last two games (an 86-80 loss to Kansas and a 60-57 win over Oklahoma) saw the Frogs commit 31 turnovers. Dixon is justifiably concerned about the adaptability of a backcourt rotation that features true freshmen Jaylen Fisher and Desmond Bane, and Texas A&M transfer Alex Robinson — none of whom have never faced the Mountaineers’ press.
Fisher has started 13 of his first 14 games after becoming the highest-rated signee in TCU history at No. 34 nationally by ESPN. He’s scoring 9.7 per game and dishing a team-high 4.4 assists. Robinson (11.2 points, 2.0 steals) and the drastically improved 6-foot-11 Vlad Brodziansky (11.2 points, 5.1 rebounds) are the top scorers, while 6-foot-7 junior guard Kenrich Williams (9.8 points, 9.8 rebounds) is a double-double threat after recovering from last season’s knee injury.
Perhaps nothing speaks to TCU’s talent infusion more than the diminished roles of seniors Karviar Shepherd and Chris Washburn, frontline regulars during past seasons who are combining to average 21 minutes currently.
West Virginia, 9-0 against the Frogs since they joined the Big 12 five years ago, is paced by forwards Esa Ahmad (12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds) and Nate Adrian (10.4 points, 6.4 rebounds) and the guard tandem of Jevon Carter (10.3 points, 3.4 steals) and Daxter Miles (10.1 points, 1.7 rebounds).
TCU (12-2, 1-1) at No. 7 West Virginia (12-2, 1-1)
Tipoff: 1 p.m. at WVU Coliseum (ESPNU)
RPIs: West Virginia 53, TCU 30
Quoting the Frogs: “We got called for six travels (against Kansas). It’s a point of emphasis this year, the travels. You just hope there’s not a big differential because you can call that on nearly every play.” — Jamie Dixon after Jayhawks guard Svi Mykhailiuk got away with a blatant travel on his buzzer-beating drive to beat Kansas State.
Free-throw follies: After ranking 272nd and 269th in foul shooting the past two years, West Virginia stands 298th currently (out of 347 teams) at 64.8 percent. Five of the top 10 players are shooting 58 percent or worse, with forward Brandon Watkins bringing up the rear at an even 50 percent. Coincidentally, Huggins said Watkins made 95 of 100 free throws after Thursday’s practice.
Prediction: West Virginia 82-72