MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — No team currently validates the depth of the Big 12 conference like Oklahoma State.
Picked last in the league, the Cowboys have dismissed their most athletic player Davon Dillard and played three games without all-conference guard Jeffrey Carroll, who was linked to the FBI’s bribery probe. Yet first-year coach Mike Boynton, elevated in the aftermath of Brad Underwood leaving a contrail for Illinois, has this group off to a 10-2 start, including a 71-70 road upset of otherwise unbeaten Florida State.
That makes Friday’s conference opener at Stillwater wrought with challenges for No. 7 West Virginia (11-1), which is six days removed from an uninspired win over Fordham.
“If we don’t play with an edge, we’re not very good, and our pressure was bad against Fordham,” said coach Bob Huggins.
While “Press Virginia” garners attention for forcing 20.9 turnovers, Oklahoma State is producing 17 per game by using its extended 1-2-2 zone to create halfcourt traps. After Florida State committed 22 turnovers on Dec. 16, coach Leonard Hamilton credited OSU with “creating the atmosphere that turned our guys very indecisive.”
Huggins sounds more concerned about the Cowboys’ offense now that the 6-foot-6 Carroll (15 points, 6.2 rebounds) has been reinstated.
“Carroll’s been really good for a long time,” Huggins said. “They’ve got a bunch of guys that can make shots. It’s hard to give them a lot of (defensive) help because everybody can make a shot.”
Along with point guard Kendall Smith (11.1 points, 4 assists) and wing forward Tavarius Shine (10.8 points), 6-9 center Mitchell Solomon is blossoming into a contributor. The senior who averages 8.8 points and 6.7 rebounds scored a career-high 17 vs. Wichita State and posted a double-double at FSU.
Oklahoma State’s interior depth recently improved when 6-11 St. John’s transfer Yankuba Sima became eligible over the past three games. He’s hoping to regain his freshman-year form in the Big East when he averaged 7.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks.
Joe Lunardi currently projects West Virginia as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. While Oklahoma State isn’t in the bracket as of now, its nonconference showing was strong enough to support inclusion should Boynton’s club make a run at .500 in the Big 12 round-robin.
“Winning validates a lot of things,” he said. “It validates that you’re as good as what you think. It validates that what you’re doing works, and it’s harder to continue to get guys to believe that — especially younger guys — when the result doesn’t show at the end.”
For the fifth consecutive season, the Big 12 placated West Virginia’s request to open league play with a two-game road swing while classes are not in session.
No. 7 West Virginia (11-1) at Oklahoma State (10-2)
Tipoff: Friday, 7 p.m. in Stillwater, Okla. (ESPNU)
Scouting WVU: Four players average double figures, led by do-it-all point guard Jevon Carter (18.2 points, 6.4 assists,5.5 rebounds) and his fellow senior Daxter Miles (14.4 points). Sophomore sixth-man James Bolden (11 points) shoots nearly 42 percent from 3, while forward Lamont West (12.5 points, 5.7 rebounds) can be an inside-outside threat. Center Sagaba Konate (8.3 points, 6.3 rebounds) has two double-doubles and the second-most blocks in the Big 12.
The skinny: While both teams defeated Pitt this season, they share one other common opponent. Texas A&M beat WVU 88-65 in Germany and handled OSU 72-55 in Brooklyn. … The Mountaineers have faced the nation’s 121st-ranked schedule while the Cowboys’ SOS stands at No. 189. … In splitting last season’s series, the road team won each time. … Through nine home games, Oklahoma State has averaged only 5,331 fans, worst in the Big 12 and less than half-capacity at 13,611-seat Gallagher-Iba Arena.
RPIs: West Virginia 30, Oklahoma State 81
Prediction: West Virginia 69-65