LUBBOCK, Texas — Welcome back to the flatlands of West Texas, cotton tracts as far as the eye can see and nary a hill between you and the horizon. Where the WVU football team had its season dashed is where the hoops squad hopes to have its season restored.
Tip-off is 1:30 Eastern today inside United Spirit Arena, a 15,098-seat facility named after the local supermarket chain whose motto is “Texans proudly serving Texans.” (Though they have no qualms selling Shiner Bock to a fellow from West Virginia.)
The Mountaineers are 4-point favorites today, but be leery — the football team was favored by the same amount in October. On we go to the five keys:
West Virginia (9-11, 2-5) at Texas Tech (9-9, 2-5) WHEN: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. TV: Big 12 Network RADIO: MetroNews coverage starts at 12:30 p.m.
1. Ready to go streaking
In a bit of curious scheduling by the Big 12, West Virginia and Texas Tech meet twice in the next five games. This is a change from the round-robin formats of yesteryear, which typically allowed teams to make a complete swoop through the league before repeating opponents. But the slapdash pace of realignment creates oddities. Another example: WVU plays Texas twice before facing Baylor once.
The next 15 days present the Mountaineers with an opportunity to climb back above .500 — thanks to four of five games against the bottom three teams in the Big 12 standings: Texas Tech, Texas and TCU. The outlier is a road game in Waco, where Baylor has suffered three losses this season, including upsets to Charleston and Northwestern.
Not even the most optimistic fan currently projects WVU having a shot at the NCAA tourney, but there’s still the consolation prize of an NIT bid, and to that end, the Mountaineers should pile up a few wins in the coming days. More emphatically, WVU had better pile up wins because the closing stretch to the regular season features six consecutive games against teams with an RPI of 51 or higher.
Watch the effort of WVU center Aaric Murray today, because Huggins certainly will be. The 6-foot-10 junior manned up against No. 2 Kansas on Monday to produce 17 points and seven rebounds, but he hasn’t typically been reliable in back-to-back games.
Also see whether Huggins brings Jabarie Hinds off the bench again, as he did against Kansas — a move that snapped a string of 52 consecutive starts for the sophomore guard.
2. Coaching mismatch
Bob Huggins owns 719 career victories compared to Chris Walker’s nine, so conventional wisdom holds that Texas Tech must outplay WVU by whatever margin you believe a head coach can wield influence.
Widening the disparity, Walker remains in interim mode — in the midst of a season-long audition having taken over the team Oct. 4 after the Billy Gillispie mess — while Huggins received what amounts to a lifetime contract extension in November.
For what it’s worth, Texas Tech athletics director Kirby Hocutt gave Walker an “exceptional” appraisal this week, perhaps because his nine overall wins already are one more than Gillispie’s team managed last season. Likewise, Tech’s two conference wins mark an improvement over the catastrophic 1-17 record perpetuated in Big 12 action.
Hocutt’s praise rings hollow, of course, until he makes Walker the permanent head coach, something the AD said will require evaluation after the season.
3. TV mismatch
Saturday’s game will be televised by the Big 12 Network, making it available in West Virginia on WOAY (Beckley/Bluefield), WQCW (Charleston/Huntington), WVFX (Clarksburg), WOVA-LD (Parkersburg), WTOV-DT (Wheeling/Steubenville), YES, PCNC (Pittsburgh) and MASN (Baltimore). Fans can find the live stream online at ESPN3.com.
With a nod toward low expectations this season, Texas Tech had zero games scheduled to appear on ESPN’s flagship channel (or CBS, for that matter). The Red Raiders are making only two appearances on ESPN2 while being routed to ESPNU six times.
Conversely, West Virginia gains a huge edge in exposure by appearing on ESPN six times, ESPN2 another six times and CBS twice. The Mountaineers also land on ESPNU twice.
4. Beyond the arc
Not sure which stat matters more: The one that shows WVU (.291) and Texas Tech (.265) at the bottom of the Big 12 in 3-point shooting, or the one that reveals Texas Tech (.359) and WVU (.361) at the bottom in 3-point defense. (For the answer, look within the riddle: If a poor shooter is left unguarded, does he become a good shooter?)
Note that in Texas Tech’s lone quality win this season — a 56-51 upset of Iowa State on Jan. 23 — ISU made only 6-of-23 from 3-point range.
5. Reading up on the Raiders
Freshman point guard Josh Gray (9.3 points, .371 field-goal percentage) and sophomore forward Jordan Tolbert (9.0 points, 6.1 rebounds) are the only two players to start every game for Texas Tech.
The shining moment for Gray was his 16 points in the win over Iowa State, but his ball-security deficiency has been chronic — 58 turnovers against 47 assists. That’s a primary reason Texas Tech ranks 320th out of 345 Division I teams in assist-to-turnover ratio. He also stands second the team in 3-point attempts (55) while making only 20 percent.
The top long-distance shooter is a freshman from Arkansas with a Texas-sounding name, Dusty Hannahs. Texas Tech was the lone power-conference program to offer a scholarship, and Hannahs as rewarded Tech by breaking into the starting lineup the past nine games.
Sixth man Jaye Crockett actually leads Tech in scoring (12.7), rebounds (7.7) and minutes (26.2), though the 6-7 junior has vanished the past three games, attempting a combined 14 shots. During that span, he has more fouls (nine) than baskets (eight).