10:06am: Talkline with Hoppy Kercheval

The blind optimist’s guide to a WVU championship in Kansas City

Can point guard Juwan Staten carry West Virginia for three straight days at the Big 12 tournament? That’s what it will take to send the Mountaineers dancing.


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Inside an empty Sprint Center, Scott Drew divided his team at opposite ends of the court for an end-of-practice free-throw contest. With the losers facing pushups and scorching shame, each team whoofed heartily at the other, mostly with shooters in mid-stroke.

This is what suffices for postseason pressure at Baylor.

From 2-8 and sinking in the Big 12 to safe and sound on the good side of the bubble. Drew’s comfortable nature has been noticeable since he pronounced Baylor an NCAA tournament lock … seven days ago.

Joe Lunardi concurs, projecting Baylor as a No. 9 seed in the Dance, which isn’t bad for a team seeded No. 7 in its own conference. That speaks to the bounty of quality teams in the Big 12, the nation’s top-rated RPI league and one that figures to advance at least seven teams to the NCAAs.

WVU isn’t considered an at-large possibility, but with regular-season champion Kansas trying to plug a 7-foot hole in its middle, the Big 12 tournament could proceed in countless directions.

“Normally going in there’s two or three teams everybody thinks are the favorites, but this year it’s truly wide-open,” Drew said Tuesday.

In this instance, wide-open encompasses every team except TCU and Texas Tech. Even sixth-seeded West Virginia is among the legitimate hopefuls, and here are a few reasons why such an event could transpire:

In the relatively brief 17-year history of the Big 12 tournament, no school has pulled off the four-wins-in-four-days superfecta. So let’s eliminate all four teams tasked with playing in the Wednesday night prelims. There, we just elevated West Virginia’s odds from 10-1 to 6-1.

But how does WVU survive the quarterfinals against Texas—the mother-of-all matchup mismatches? That’s simple: Texas won’t play as well as did during the first two meetings.

Despite what WVU witnessed in Morgantown and Austin, the Longhorns are not a superior offensive team. They finished eighth in the league in shooting (42 percent), 10th in 3-point accuracy (30 percent), seventh in scoring (71.8 per game) and eighth in points per possession. So those two-game averages of 84 points and 55 percent shooting against the Mountaineers, they were mirages. This team is coming back to its statistical norm.

Plus, Texas has lost five consecutive games away from home, including a 59-53 stinker in Lubbock last Saturday. Hail, WV! On to the semifinals!

On Friday night, the bracket projects WVU will face … Drew and his Baylor bunch. (We figure Baylor to be a might ticked over losing twice to second-seeded Oklahoma during the regular season.)

If you’re searching for the most heinous 20 minutes of basketball West Virginia played in the Big 12, my frontrunner would be the second half from Baylor’s Feb. 22 game in Morgantown, when the Mountaineers were outscored 52-33 in what became an 88-75 loss. Royce O’Neal was 8-for-8 in that game—eight for freaking EIGHT!—and that’s not happening again. Plus Baylor will be a step slow from playing its third game in 52 hours. WVU thanks its lucky stars for the bye and marches into the final against …

Iowa State?

Yup. Fred Hoiberg’s band of 3-point bombers will knock off top-seeded and Embiid-less Kansas in the other semifinal, which signals the Rock Chalk Nation to leave town a day early. (Look at all this parking!)

West Virginia, having womped the Cyclones by 25 in February, is emboldened, feeling it still must win the tourney to fetch an NCAA bid. (C’mon, you don’t think a 19-15 team with a mid-70s RPI is getting in, do you?). The Cyclones get a much better game from Melvin Ejim than he delivered against WVU previously, but Juwan Staten’s soul burns with the white-hot scorn of a player bypassed for league MVP honors. He finishes two steals shy of a quadruple double and WVU cuts down the nets at the Sprint Center.

That would make Selection Sunday significantly more interesting in the Mountain State.

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