West Virginia appears to be back where it belongs entering its Big 12 basketball opener.
After finishing in the conference cellar last season and just 15-21 overall, the No. 16 Mountaineers are 11-1 and carry a four-game winning streak, including a 67-59 win Sunday in Cleveland against then-No. 2 Ohio State.
The victory was the 19th over a top-10 opponent for Bob Huggins since he became the Mountaineers’ coach in 2007. Another such opportunity now presents itself against No. 3 Kansas (10-2), something Huggins noted when asked about the NCAA Tournament atmosphere that enveloped the showdown with Ohio State.
“We’re going to Allen Fieldhouse next game, so we get a whole lot of that in our league, a lot of tournament atmosphere,” he said. “I can’t get wrapped up in beating one particular team, because we play a lot of good people.”
Freshman guard Miles McBride scored a season-high 21 points against the Buckeyes, including six in the final 2:22.
Defensive tenacity, a trademark under Huggins, has been essential as West Virginia deals with inconsistent shooting both from the field (43.8 percent) and the foul line (66.7). Against Ohio State, the Mountaineers overcame scoreless stretches of 3:51 and 5:07 in the second half, despite forging its comeback after the break.
During nonconference play, West Virginia limited opponents to 35.9 percent shooting (seventh-best in the nation) while suffering its lone defeat against St. John’s. The steady pressure the Mountaineers exerted led to 12 turnovers they forced in the second half of the Ohio State upset.
“We played kind of tentative and we can’t play tentative. Then we came out in the second half and that’s as well as we’ve played defensively all year,” Huggins said.
Kansas looks to challenge for the Big 12 title after its streak of 14 consecutive championships was snapped last season.
The Jayhawks’ ability to pull out close games could be hindered by their 65.0 percentage from the free-throw line. While that problem incorporates the difficulties senior Udoka Azubuike has with foul shots, others have struggled too.
Azubuike, a 7-0 center, is shooting just 31.8 percent from the line (14 of 44) while leading the nation with 79.8 percent accuracy from the field. Nonetheless, only one starter, sophomore point guard Devon Dotson, exceeds the 70-percent mark on free throws.
Although Kansas coach Bill Self insisted that his team must “play a lot better offensively to be able to keep moving the needle forward” against Big 12 opposition, production on that end has been solid except for the fallout from the foul line.
The Jayhawks lead the Big 12 in scoring (81.1), field goal percentage (51.6) and 3-point percentage (36.9). Backup guard Isaiah Moss, a graduate transfer, has provided 3-point support off the bench and led Kansas with 17 points as it slogged through a 72-56 win over Stanford on Sunday.
Dotson enters the conference opener as the Big 12 scoring leader with an 18.7-point average, while West Virginia sophomore forward Derek Culver is the Big 12 rebounder leader, averaging 9.4 boards.
–Field Level Media