MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Rather astonishingly, No. 15 West Virginia finds itself in the thick of the Big 12 race. Staying there won’t be easy.
Beginning with Tuesday night’s trip to Oklahoma, the Mountaineers face a 10-game stretch against opponents with an average RPI of 26. Mathematically speaking, it’s the toughest stretch any West Virginia team has ever faced during the regular season.
Point guard Juwan Staten says bring it on.
“We’ve played tough teams. We’ve played teams with size. We’ve played athletic teams,” he said. “We’ve been tested.”
After ripping through the Sooners 86-65 in Morgantown on Jan. 13, creating 22 turnovers in the process, West Virginia expects the return game to be much closer, though not impossibly daunting. After all, the Mountaineers are 10-1 away from home this season.
“I think the way we play cancels out a lot of normal factors other teams worry about on the road,” Staten said. “We feel like we have the tools and the bodies to make anybody turn the ball over.”
The Mountaineers, trapping baseline-to-baseline, are on pace to obliterate the single-season school record of 648 forced turnovers set in 1998. That pressure fuels transition opportunities that WVU leads the Big 12 in field-goal attempts and ranks second in scoring (77 points per game).
Freshman Daxter Miles, after making eight steals in the past three games, feels the Mountaineers’ press can be just as effective against Oklahoma the second time.
“I remember we had a lot of deflections, and I’m looking forward to same type of game,” he said. “The energy has to be crazy when we go on the road.”
After winning three straight, West Virginia (18-3, 6-2) enters Tuesday in sole possession of second place in the Big 12, only one loss behind Kansas.
No. 21 Oklahoma (14-7, 5-4) was tied for fourth place after winning 64-56 at Oklahoma State on Saturday, which brought the Sooners’ record to 3-6 when scoring fewer than 70 points. The celebration over a Bedlam sweep quickly gave way to talk about a rematch with the Mountaineers.
“We’ve got to stay positive and stay calm as a group,” said guard Buddy Hield, the league’s top scorer at 17.4 per game. “We’ve got a tough one against West Virginia. They’re going to be scrapping.”
The most striking stat from that first meeting was West Virginia’s massive 55-8 edge in bench scoring, which featured 18 points from Jevon Carter and 10 by Nathan Adrian.
“From the beginning what we tried to sell them was the fact that everyone can play and have an opportunity to play,” said coach Bob Huggins. “I wanted them to play as hard as they could play. Our rule is and always has been, if I take you out for not playing hard, you won’t get back in there.”
Tipoff: 8 p.m. Eastern at Norman, Okla. (ESPN2)
Scouting the Sooners: Hield leads the league in 3-point tries (151) is fourth in accuracy at 37.7 percent. … Junior guard Isaiah Cousins (12 points, 5.4 rebounds) is the most unpredictable of the Sooners. A 45-percent 3-point shooter, he hasn’t produced consecutive double-digit scoring games in a month and was held to two points at Oklahoma State. Though he scored 11 at WVU, he also committed a team-worst five turnovers. … 6-8 forward Ryan Spangler (10.3 points, 8 rebounds) is the Big 12’s second-leading rebounder, a deft passer and a guy who beats opposing bigs down the floor. He’s also the reigning conference player of the week. Spangler’s joined by 6-8 transfer TaShawn Thomas (10.8 points, 5.9 rebounds), who hasn’t missed a start in 117 college games. … Sophomore point guard Jordan Woodard (8.7 points, 4.4 assists, 3.5 rebounds) isn’t shooting 3s as well as last season, but he’s third in the Big 12 in assists.
Coaching the Sooners: Lon Kruger (551-349) is in his fourth season at Oklahoma, where he’s 72-45 and on pace for a third consecutive NCAA berth. Since the blowout loss at West Virginia he senses his team has improved at “being strong with the ball, more aggressive to loose balls and being more physical.”
Mountaineers musings: West Virginia’s Devin Williams (11.3 points, 8 rebounds) scored seven field goals against Texas Tech, one off his career high. He scored five times from point-blank range and made two short-corner jumpers. … Staten (14.8 points, 4.4 assists) is just 17-of-30 on free throws the past four games, dropping his overall rate to 71 percent. He’s averaging 30 minutes per game, with Williams the next highest at 23. … In his 33rd season, coach Bob Huggins (758-305) can move into a tie with Ed Diddle for 12th place on the NCAA all-time wins list. … Jonathan Holton (9.2 points, 6 rebounds) has sone basket and five turnovers in his past two games, but he grabbed eight boards vs. Texas Tech. … Gary Browne (6.8 points, 1.7 assists, 1.3 steals) explains how defense is fueling the Mountaineers: “It’s like when you get paid, you want more and more money. So every time we dive and get the ball, we get excited. There’s nothing that gets us more excited than getting the ball back.”
RPIs: West Virginia 20, Oklahoma 21
Line: Oklahoma favored by 6
Prediction: Oklahoma 74-66