No. 23 West Virginia has known for months it must make due without Esa Ahmad. Missouri is still getting accustomed to life without Michael Porter Jr.
Both teams are short-handed, yet extremely dangerous, as they enter Sunday night’s championship game of the Advocare Invitational in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
West Virginia (5-1) flirted with catastrophe in its tournament opener against Marist, pulling away for an 84-78 win in the final 5 minutes. The Mountaineers were much more efficient and enthused during Friday’s 83-45 domination of previously unbeaten UCF.
“We played with a lot of energy,” coach Bob Huggins said after the Mountaineers forced 27 turnovers in walloping UCF. “We’re pretty good when we play with energy and we’re bad when we don’t play with energy.”
Missouri is also 5-1, having reached the final by crushing Long Beach State 92-58 and defeating St. John’s 90-82.
“We managed to weather the storm,” said Tigers forward Jordan Barnett after scoring 19 points against the Red Storm on Friday. “We never stopped fighting. We continued to believe.”
Cuonzo Martin’s team absorbed a huge blow when Porter, the five-star freshman and NBA lottery prospect, had to undergo back surgery this week. Because the procedure appears to be season-ending, Missouri’s players came to Florida with closure and redefined roles.
With St. John’s making a second-half charge, Martin went away from his nature and dropped the Tigers into a 2-3 zone. That sparked a 15-4 run that put Mizzou ahead to stay.
“I just felt like for us the zone was more about stopping the bleeding,” Martin said.
He might want to keep the zone ready for West Virginia, which shot 8-of-38 from 3-point range against Marist’s sagging defense.
Aside from reserve sharpshooter Beetle Bolden, WVU is making 28 percent of its 3s this season. Much of its 88 points per game comes from transition baskets off turnovers and relentless offensive rebounding.
Jevon Carter (16.3 points) also averages seven assists, 4.2 rebounds and four steals per game. Daxter Miles (14.2 points) and Bolden (12.7 points) give the backcourt punch, while center Sagaba Konate is averaging 12.7 points and 7.4 rebounds inside. His 19 blocks have contributed to opponents shooting only 40 percent from the floor.
The Mountaineers will be missing their versatile forward Ahmad for another 10 games, following his NCAA-imposed half-season suspension.
Mizzou starts two freshmen — point guard Blake Harris and 6-10 forward Jeremiah Tilmon — while seniors like Barnett (10.2 points, 4.3 rebounds) and guard Kassius Robertson (13.7 points) bring veteran stability. Junior Kevin Puryear is producing 12.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
“We had one goal in mind when we left Columbia, and that’s to win this thing and make our mark,” Puryear told The Columbia Tribune. “That’s what we plan to do. We know what we are capable of. The job is not finished. We still have one more game to play.”
West Virginia (5-1) vs. Missouri (5-1)
Tipoff: Sunday, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Prediction: West Virginia 78-76