KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Assistant coach Larry Harrison strolled out of West Virginia’s locker room and summarized a hardly majestic 63-53 win over Texas.
In four words.
“Hey, we’re still playing.”
That’s more than No. 1 Kansas can claim about the Big 12 tournament, which lost to TCU (or a Josh Jackson traffic citation, depending on your tolerance for excuses).
In 21 years of Big 12 tournament basketball, the Jayhawks dropped their opener for only the second time. In the past 32 years, West Virginia has won only two league tournaments. So this could become a weekend for rarities, though the Mountaineers weren’t tethering themselves to anything transpiring on the opposite side of the bracket.
Asked about the impact of Kansas being eliminated, point guard Jevon Carter replied, “Nothing.”
Following a few more seconds of dead air, he added: “This game was about us. We didn’t care if Kansas won or lost.”
The only Kansas team still playing is bubblelicious K-State, which upended third-seeded and No. 9-ranked Baylor 70-64. Come Friday night, the Wildcats will face WVU in a semifinal rubber game after they split the regular-season home-and-home.
West Virginia figures to need a crisper performance than it showed against last-place Texas, when it finished only plus-one in turnover margin, shot free-throws as if blind-folded and settled for a 24-point second half.
Mountaineers not named Jevon Carter shot 16-of-42. Tarik Phillip departed temporarily with a leg injury. Nathan Adrian hurt his left shoulder and left wrist on different plays. Though both seemed fine in the postgame Esa Ahmad, now in his third week coping with a back strain, still sauntered with a stiffness.
The sophomore produced one basket and three turnovers. After losing a ball into the teeth of the Texas defense, Ahmad went to the bench appearing more exasperated than I’ve ever seen him. Harrison and fellow assistant Erik Martin promptly took turns trying to soothe him.
Teammates also waxed optimistic about Ahmad’s recovery.
“I’m telling you, Esa’s going to snap back,” Phillip pledged. “It’s going to be one game when y’all see that Esa Ahmad’s back, and it’s going to be bad news for everybody.”
The potential good news facing West Virginia is something it won’t admit and quite frankly cannot control: That the Big 12 bracket has softened up with two top-10 teams eliminated.
Yet the path to a Bob Bowlsby Trophy Moment remains tricky considering WVU fell to 16-loss Temple and 11-win Oklahoma.
K-State brings a strong following to the Sprint Center, making Friday sure to feel like a road game. Saturday’s atmosphere would turn even more hostile should a matchup against Iowa State materialize at “Hilton South.”
Geography may be against West Virginia but Adrian still felt the love. Sitting against a locker, an ice bag strapped to his shoulder, he repeatedly thumbed his smart phone and let loose a series of grins.
Who was he texting?
Should WVU complete its mission — “Win these three games and take the championship back to Morgantown.” — Adrian’s phone had better be fully charged.