MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Having watched the first half of West Virginia’s season from the margins, Esa Ahmad now resurfaces, carrying the key to the second half.

The team’s most attractive NBA prospect, yet to fully realize his potential in the college ranks, sat for 16 games, 15 of which his teammates won as they ascended to No. 2 in the AP poll.

How much better can the Mountaineers become with the return of their biggest matchup problem, who also happens to be their most explosive finisher?

Depending on Ahmad’s conditioning and rustiness — possibly mitigated by his ability to continue practicing these past three months — he figures to deliver an immediate impact when WVU visits No. 8 Texas Tech in the nation’s marquee game Saturday.

“The thing I’ve always liked about Esa is he knows how to play,” coach Bob Huggins said. “He may not be at the top of his game come Saturday, but I’m guessing it won’t be long until he will be.”

Red Raiders coach Chris Beard said he’s preparing like Ahmad “will play every minute of the game.”

While averaging 11.3 points and 4.3 rebounds as a sophomore, Ahmad led the team in free-throw attempts (164) by a wide margin. And he reached the foul line at a higher rate during three NCAA tournament games, going 17-of-21.

That’s the aggressive brand of player West Virginia needs to beat the fired-up Red Raiders in their building, though Ahmad must re-acclimate while staying under control. He understands the offensive sets and the defensive rotations, as a third-year player should, but that extended absence from game action could make him excitable amid such a hyper-charged atmosphere.

And he’ll hop back into action against the nation’s fifth-stingiest field-goal defense.

Texas Tech (14-2, 3-1), which sits a game behind West Virginia in the Big 12 standings, owns a leg up on the rest of the conference thanks to an 85-73 win at Kansas some 10 days ago. Off to an 11-0 start at home this season, Beard’s team has won 15 of its last 17 at United Supermarkets Arena, with those two losses by a combined three points.

With the Mountaineers enjoying their loftiest AP ranking in 59 seasons, Lamont West anticipates a West Texas dogfight: “Like Coach Huggs told us, it’s easy to get there but it’s hard to stay there.”

No. 2 West Virginia (15-1, 4-0) at
No. 8 Texas Tech (14-2, 3-1)

Tipoff: Saturday, 2 p.m. in Lubbock, Texas (ESPN)

The skinny: Guard Keenan Evans (17.3 points, 3.2 assists) leads a senior contingent that makes Texas Tech go, while 6-foot-5 freshmen Zaire Smith (10.3 points, 4.2 rebounds) and Jarrett Culver (10.2 points, 3.6 rebounds) have emerged quickly. … Two Red Raiders are questionable for Saturday. Senior forward Zach Smith (ankle) was sidelined in a boot during Wednesday’s loss at Oklahoma, and guard Justin Gray (knee) produced one point and three turnovers in 15 minutes. … Tech’s Brandon Francis, a Florida transfer, enjoyed his best game as a freshman against WVU two years ago in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge by making 3-of-4 from 3-point range.

Scouting WVU: Boxscore stuffer Jevon Carter (16.1 points, 6.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds) tops Division I with 58 steals, part of a “Press Virginia” defense that forces 20.3 turnovers, second-most in the nation. … Today’s ridiculous-sounding stat: WVU has allowed 333 baskets this season and forced nearly as many turnovers (325). … Daxter Miles (13.8 points) is a bigger piece of the offense despite shooting a career-low 28 percent on 3s. … Lamont West (12.9 points) or Wesley Harris (6.1 points) could eventually sacrifice a starting role to Ahmad, though both will continue playing heavy minutes. The real trickle-down impact could mean reduced playing time for Teddy Allen and, in cases where Huggins deploys a small lineup, Maciej Bender.

Quotable: “It’s 40 minute of intense pressure. He has great hands and he’s fast with poking the ball loose and being physical. And on offense he’s a great attacker.” — Evans on facing Jevon Carter

RPIs: West Virginia 13, Texas Tech 19

Line: Texas Tech favored by 4

Prediction: West Virginia 77-75

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