A quick turnaround is in store for West Virginia some 50 hours after the Mountaineers put forth a valiant effort but fell short Saturday at No. 3 Kansas, 76-74.
The season’s final road game comes at 9 p.m. Monday when West Virginia takes on Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum in a matchup that will be carried by ESPN2.
The consensus nationally is that the Mountaineers (16-13, 5-11) need at least one, if not multiple victories the rest of the way, to feel good about their chances of an at-large selection into the NCAA Tournament.
Yet after West Virginia nearly recorded its first victory in 11 tries at Allen Fielhouse against a Jayhawks’ squad in the mix for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Mountaineers’ head coach Bob Huggins did not mince words regarding how WVU’s challenging schedule makes it more deserving of being included in the 68-team field come March 12.
“We have far and away the best strength of schedule in the country,” Huggins said. “If that doesn’t mean something to the committee, shame on them. Not just that — look at our scores. We deserve to be in the tournament. They give you all that BS about play a strong schedule and then we play a strong schedule. Well, if they continue to tell you to do that, they ought to own up to their end of the bargain.
“I told our guys I don’t think we really have anything to worry about and I will blast their ass as far and as long as I can if they don’t let these guys in the tournament after years and years of ‘play a competitive schedule.’ The best teams are the teams that play the best strength of schedule. We have played the best strength of schedule and it’s not arguable. They ought to get credit for it.”
Still, Huggins would be the first to admit a weight would be lifted off his shoulders if the Mountaineers could wrap up a regular season sweep of the Cyclones.
West Virginia would almost certainly be safe for a tournament selection had it found a way to win at KU, but a late rally wasn’t enough as the Mountaineers failed to get a shot off and guard Joe Toussaint traveled in the final seconds to seal their fate.
Despite losing for the 16th time in 17 Big 12 road games dating back to last season, there were a fair share of positives for WVU.
For the second straight game, the team’s top two scorers, guard Erik Stevenson and forward Tre Mitchell, scored at least 20 points. Emmitt Matthews Jr. had a solid effort with 13 points and six rebounds, and though he had eight of the team’s 21 turnovers, point guard Kedrian Johnson finished with 15 points and a pair of steals while helping to disrupt the Kansas offense often.
Johnson missed the first matchup with KU while recovering from a concussion, but was part of the reason Jayhawks’ head coach Bill Self was left impressed by the Mountaineers after his team struggled to put them away.
“You guys saw them play today. Does that look like an NCAA Tournament team to you? The answer is an emphatic yes,” Self said. “They’re good. The league is really hard and they’re really good. When we played them the first time, Johnson was hurt and didn’t play. He makes a huge difference, because he’s so fast. We couldn’t even run plays because he would deflect a pass or play between [KU point guard Dajuan Harris] and where the next pass is going, where you couldn’t throw it. Your play is dead, because obviously he’s totally disrupted it already. He’s really good, and Mitchell had a great game, and of course Stevenson can score with the best of them.”
Johnson and Matthews were vital to West Virginia beating the Cyclones 76-71 earlier this month. Johnson led all players with 22 points and Matthews added 20 while making 7-of-10 shots. Stevenson was limited to one field goal and eight points in that game, in which WVU got several critical late defensive plays from Toussaint to secure the victory.
Stevenson has at least 23 points each of the last three games and leads the Mountaineers with a 14.9 scoring average.
“I’ve never really wanted to look at positives in a loss, but I can’t be more proud of my teammates,” Stevenson said following the loss at KU. “There was a stretch in the second half I don’t think we subbed. We played our hearts out and just came up a bucket short. A call here or there, I had three in and outs and that could’ve been the game. This one stings, but we have to get to Ames and get a win there, and hopefully finish out with a win against Kansas State at home.”
Mitchell has 42 points on 16-for-27 shooting over the last two contests and follows Stevenson with an average of 11.8 points, while Johnson is also in double figures at 10.7. Matthews (9.9) and Toussaint (9.4) are next in scoring, though Toussaint has struggled of late, going 7 for 32 over the last six games.
As of Monday morning, Iowa State is ranked No. 23, though the Cyclones (17-11, 8-8) are sure to fall out of the Top 25 after losing at Texas by 18 points and suffering a disappointing 61-50 home setback to Oklahoma on Saturday.
Starting with a loss in Morgantown 19 days ago, the Cyclones are 1-5 over their last six games. The lone triumph came against a TCU team that was without its top player in guard Mike Miles Jr.
Despite the recent struggles, the Cyclones are a near certainty to make the NCAA Tournament as a result of their body of work over the season’s first three months.
Guards Jaren Holmes (13 points) and Gabe Kalscheur (12.3) are the Cyclones’ two double-figure scorers, while fellow guard Caleb Grill is at 9.9. That trio has combined for 144 of the team’s 182 three-pointers.
In the front court, Osun Osunniyi and Aljaz Kunc are key contributors with averages of 8.8 and 8.3 points, respectively.
Point guard Tamin Lipsey follows that duo with an average of 7.6, and the freshman scored a career-high 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting in the matchup at the WVU Coliseum.
While the first meeting between the two teams featured 81 second-half points, a combined 49 fouls and 55 free-throw attempts, the Cyclones are more adept to playing at a methodical pace that has them ninth in the Big 12 averaging 68.3 points and first in scoring defense surrendering 62.
Iowa State’s 44.7 field-goal percentage is also No. 9 in the conference and it holds opponents to 41.9 percent shooting — the fourth best mark in the league.
The Mountaineers will continue to be without 6-foot-10 sophomore Mohamed Wague, who missed Saturday’s loss and is sidelined indefinitely with a right foot injury. It leaves Jimmy Bell Jr. and James Okonkwo as the team’s only centers, though the Mountaineers utilized a smaller lineup with Mitchell at that position for stretches of their most recent game.
“Our other guys can play,” Huggins said. “We wish Mo could be out there, but our other guys did a pretty good job.”