KANSAS CITY, Mo. — After back-to-back runner-up finishes at the Big 12 Tournament, No. 18 West Virginia wants to complete the mission this season.
“It’s winning time, so every possession is big,” all-conference guard Jevon Carter said from inside the Sprint Center.
As the third-seeded Mountaineers (22-9) completed their Wednesday shootaround, reports surfaced that Kansas center Udoka Azubuike would miss the tournament after suffering an MCL sprain. The 7-footer’s absence rendered an already wide-open field even more unpredictable.
“It changes things because he’s a force,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose team couldn’t encounter Kansas until the final. “He’s a terrific rebounder and he’s a great rim protector. I would think that would hurt a lot of the stuff they do with ball-screens.”
The Mountaineers’ path begins Thursday night in the Big 12 quarterfinals against sixth-seeded Baylor (18-13), whose odds of landing an NCAA bid look precarious. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently projects the Bears as one of the final teams in the NCAA bracket.
“It doesn’t matter what I think as far as if we’re in or out, but I do know we control our own destiny as long as we’re still playing,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “We have an opportunity to play until we’re beaten.”
They were beaten during both home-and-home matchups against West Virginia this season, losing 57-54 in Morgantown and 71-60 in Waco.
For Round 3, Baylor needs more from forward Terry Maston. The Big 12’s sixth man of the year shot a combined 2-of-10 against West Virginia during the regular season and scored only five points.
“When he’s on we know it’s give him the ball and get out of the way,” Drew said.
One of four seniors in Drew’s rotation, Maston averages 10.8 points and 5.6 rebounds. He’s the only veteran to have spent his entire career at Baylor.
“It’s going to be my last Big 12 tournament,” Maston told the Waco Tribune, “so hopefully the fourth time is the charm. We’re going in with the mindset that we need to win every game we play, and the first game is always the toughest.”
No team is tougher to project than West Virginia, coming off a mercurial couple months in which it built — and frequently squandered — enormous leads. The uneven play continued during Saturday’s overtime loss against undermanned Texas.
“We felt like we didn’t play with a lot of energy, and it showed out there on the film,” guard Beetle Bolden said.
Now, amid the postseason reboot, West Virginia goes in search of its first tournament title since 2010 in the Big East,.
“Practices have been very energetic,” Carter said. “Everybody’s charged up, ready to win and advance.”
No. 18 West Virginia (22-9, 11-7) vs. Baylor (18-13, 8-10)
Tipoff: Thursday, 9 p.m. Eastern in Kansas City (ESPN)
The skinny: After finishing in a four-way deadlock for sixth place in the Big 12, Baylor earned the No. 6 seed via tiebreaker. It also earned a bye. “It’s huge from the standpoint that winning three games in the Big 12 tournament is tough enough, but winning four is even tougher,” Drew said. … On a team revered for its length, 5-foot-11 point guard Manu Lecomte (15.7 points) emerged as Baylor’s top scorer, though he made only 6-of-23 shots vs. WVU in two meetings. … 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil (14.4 points, 8.8 rebounds) and 6-9 Nuni Omot (9.8 points, 43 percent from 3) are inside-outside threats. … Utilizing its 1-1-3 zone, Baylor is 17th defensively in KenPom’s ratings,
Scouting WVU: Press Virginia forced 35 turnovers in two regular-season wins over Baylor, but Huggins is concerned after his team was out-rebounded twice. … Carter (17 points, 6.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds) set the WVU single-season assist record against Texas. His 89 steals are eight shy of the school mark set by Damian Owens in 1998. … Daxter Miles (12.1 points) has struggled shooting from deep but is averaging a career-best 3.3 assists. … Big 12 All-Defensive team honoree Sagaba Konate (10.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.4 blocks) became a one-man fortress against the Bears this season with 16 blocks. … Esa Ahmad (10.3 points, 5.1 rebounds) has 15 baskets and 14 turnovers in six career games at the Big 12 tournament. Lamont West (10.2 points) shot 1-for-7 at the Sprint Center as a freshman and Beetle Bolden (9.5 points, 44 percent from 3) played only 8 minutes in the three games.
Quotable: “Who in the hell doesn’t want to win? C’mon, man, we’re playing in a tournament for a reason. We all feel like we have something to prove. We feel like we’ve let a few (games) get away from us that we shouldn’t have. That’s not a feeling you want to go into the NCAA tournament with. You want to rectify that.” — WVU assistant Ron Everhart, dismissing the notion that conference tournaments don’t matter.
RPIs: West Virginia 31, Baylor 59
Line: West Virginia favored by 6
Prediction: Baylor 70-68