MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s basketball program was in “fix it“ mode when Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles signed during November 2013.
Coach Bob Huggins, stinging from his first losing season in 27 years, wanted grittier players committed to digging in on defense. And when “Press Virginia” debuted the following year, it had freshman guards providing the teeth.
Monday night brings their home finale when the No. 21 Mountaineers (21-8, 10-6) host No. 6 Texas Tech at the WVU Coliseum.
Carter hasn’t missed a game in his college career, a string that will reach 137 on Senior Night. The All-American candidate ranks fourth in the nation in steals and soon will become the first four-time member of the Big 12 all-defensive team.
Miles is ninth on the school career steals list (167) and fifth in games started (116).
“They’ve had great careers,” Huggins said. “Those two guys, to a large degree, are responsible for getting this back on track.”
As a high school senior, Miles met Carter in Beckley at the Scott Brown Classic. Even in that all-star setting, Carter showed his defensive fervor by picking up Miles full-court.
“I just thought he was trying to prove something, but he stayed with it,” Miles said. “He got tired and he had me tired too, but I scored 30.”
That recollection remains somewhat in dispute.
“He didn’t get 30 off of me,” Carter said. “He started killing it when I switched off of him. I was locking him up.”
While West Virginia is approaching its fourth straight NCAA bid, Texas Tech (22-7, 10-6) has gone dancing just once over the past decade. Second-year coach Chris Beard hopes this year’s success — highlighted by the program’s highest-ever AP ranking — isn’t some temporary flash.
Picked seventh in the Big 12 season, the Red Raiders were primed to stop Kansas’ unfathomable string of league championships until a recent three-game losing streak.
After a 74-72 loss Saturday to the Jayhawks, amid the craziest gameday atmosphere Lubbock has ever witnessed, Beard lamented how close his team came to “sitting in here popping pinatas and having a party.”
Now a second-place finish appears the best Texas Tech can manage, and even that depends on properly managing a 48-hour turnaround as it flies across country to face West Virginia.
“I know they’re an aggressive team,” said Red Raiders freshman Zhaire Smith. “We’ve got to be able to make the right plays — smart plays.”
Texas Tech won the first meeting 72-71 on Jan. 13, rallying from 11 points down in the final 13 minutes. Keenan Evans scored 20 points that day, going 8-of-9 at the foul line.
Winning the rematch will be difficult, though, with Evans hobbled by a foot injury. The senior guard has made just 3-of-19 shots from the floor during the past three losses, not coming close to his 17.2 points-per-game average.
Forward Justin Gray, the only Red Raider to start all 29 games, is questionable after being knocked out of the Kansas game by a hard screen.
“If there’s an MVP on our team, it might be Justin,” Beard said. “The guy has changed his game every year he’s been in college. He’s our ultimate glue guy. He’s our best defender, out best rebounder per position, and he scores big baskets.”
Texas Tech (22-7, 10-6) at No. 21 West Virginia (21-8, 10-6)
Tipoff: Monday, 9 p.m. in Morgantown, W.Va. (ESPN2)
The skinny: With a win the Red Raiders will sew up the No. 2 seed in the Big 12 tournament. … Evans leads Tech in scoring at 17.2 per game, but in his diminished state look for freshmen Zaire Smith (11.4 points, 4.7 rebounds) and Jarrett Culver (11.2 points, 4.2 rebounds) to take more shots. … After a 13-game injury absence, senior forward Zach Smith returned in Tech’s loss to Kansas. … West Virginia has won seven of the previous eight senior night games, including five against ranked teams.
Scouting WVU: Carter (17 points, 6.5 assists) and Miles (12.2 points) will be the guests of honor, but junior Esa Ahmad (10.3 points, 4.7 rebounds) is the X-factor, having asserted himself in back-to-back outings. “We had a talk before the Baylor game about him being more active,” Huggins said. “He should be the best offensive three-man in the league. He’s big, he’s strong, he has great hands. We need him to help Sags.” … Sagaba Konate (10.5 points, 8 rebounds, 3.5 blocks) grabbed 11 boards in the first meeting, but Beetle Bolden, Lamont West and Teddy Allen combined for only three points.
RPIs: Texas Tech 20, West Virginia 29
Line: West Virginia favored by 5.5
Prediction: West Virginia 77-69