9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Kansas -1.0
The Big Twelve can go a long way towards being decided tonight as the struggling, twenty-first-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers play host to the eighth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks in Morgantown tonight. Owning a two-game lead on Iowa State, Kansas (21-4, 10-2 in Big Twelve) looks to win their seventh out of eight outings, but will need to avenge last year’s loss at WVU Coliseum to do it. When these teams met a year ago, the Jayhawks were ambushed early, trailing 50-38 at Halftime en route to losing to the tune of 92-86. Bill Self’s charges were picked apart defensively, as the hosts shot a ridiculous 52.9% from the field, including 9-of-16 from beyond the arc (56.3%). Conversely, the visitors weren’t nearly as efficient offensively, mustering just 45.2% shooting themselves, while missing fifteen of their twenty-three attempts from downtown (34.8%). There was no fluidity to be found for Kansas who dished out a mere nine assists, while committing eleven turnovers. Oddly enough, the only thing that kept them within striking distance was West Virginia’s penchant for sending them to the charity stripe, where they netted twenty-two of their thirty-two attempts (68.8%). In fact, the contest was marred by physical play, as both combatants combined for a sizable fifty-two fouls committed, leading to a whopping seventy-two free-throws attempted. The NBA-bound Andrew Wiggins led the Jayhawks with an astounding forty-one points, while Perry Ellis added fourteen points of his own, along with five rebounds and a block. Though Wiggins and fellow Lottery Pick Joel Embiid have departed, this current incarnation of the Jayhawks is deeper and more experienced, with an unprecedented eleventh consecutive Big Twelve Regular Season Championship well within their grasp.
Self’s charges will need to rebound quickly after a brief one-day respite, after defeating sixteenth-ranked Baylor 74-64 this past Saturday in Lawrence, Kansas. Trailing 33-27 at the midway point, the hosts blitzed the Bears in the second half, outscoring them 47-31 over the final twenty minutes of play. Defensively, the Jayhawks buckled down on the visitors, relegating them to a mere 37.5% shooting from the field, including a pitiful 13-of-33 from within the three-point arc (39.4%). The hosts on the other hand, weren’t great offensively, but good enough to get the job done; the hosts shot 46.8% from the field, having their way at the rim where they shot 16-of-29 from within the three-point line (55.2%), while taking residence at the charity stripe where they calmly knocked down twenty-four of their twenty-nine free-throws (82.8%). Stud Freshman Kelly Oubre Jr. and the aforementioned Ellis led the way with eighteen points apiece, while Wayne Selden contributed with another fifteen points. In fact, the triumvirate carried the lion’s share of the load, accounting for fifty-one of the home side’s seventy-four points (68.9%). As is often the case with plenty of Self’s past teams, this particular Kansas has gotten much better as the season has progressed; after getting embarrassed by Temple (77-52) back on December 22nd, the Jayhawks have since won ten out of twelve games, improving immensely on both sides of the ball. Conference play has been a boon for these kids, who rank in the top five in a number of telling categories in league play. Offensively, they have scored 73.3 points per game (2nd in Big Twelve) on 46.1% shooting overall (2nd in Big Twelve), including 48.1% from within the three-point arc (3rd in Big Twelve) and a league-best 41.9% from beyond it. Furthermore, the denizens of Phog Allen Fieldhouse have been the most efficient unit in the competitive Big Twelve, leading the conference in assists (15.9), all the while committing the second-fewest turnovers (12.0). Chalk that up to the improved play of Sophomore Guards Frank Mason and the aforementioned Selden, with the duo accounting for 23.0 points and 7.5 assists per game. The latter has really developed into a threat from beyond the arc, leading the team in three-point field goals (26), while shooting a stellar 47.3% from the perimeter. His ability to stretch the floor has also opened some much needed space for Ellis, who has shaken off a slow start to the campaign, to become a force in conference play. The 6-8 Forward has averaged 13.2 points on 47.6% shooting from the field, along with 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.8 steals, and 1.0 block per game, with a PER of 21.2. Defensively, this team has been absolutely suffocating at times, yielding just 64.0 points (5th in Big Twelve) on a stellar 37.3% shooting from the field (1st in Big Twelve), including just 40.3% from within the three-point arc (1st in Big Twelve) and 30.2% from beyond it (1st in Big Twelve).
Meanwhile, life hasn’t been so good for the Mountaineers (19-6, 7-5 in Big Twelve), who have really stumbled of late now that they have waded deep into conference play. After getting off to a sterling 14-1 start to the campaign, West Virginia has since lost five of their last ten games, including three of their last four outings. Bob Huggins cannot be pleased with the recent turn of events for his club, who have been run out of the gym in each of those aforementioned three defeats, losing by an average margin of 21.0 points per game. His charges held their own in their first twenty minutes at Iowa State this past Saturday, trailing 36-32 at Halftime, yet were obliterated over the duration of the second half where they were outscored by whopping sixteen points. So what exactly went wrong for the Mountaineers, you ask? Simply put, they couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean; the visitors shot a miserable 37.9% from the field, including 13-of-30 form within the three-point arc (43.3%) and scant 9-of-29 from beyond it (32.1%). Furthermore, they dished out only eleven assists, while committing nineteen turnovers, many of which occurred in the second half. Juwan Staten was the only player to finish in double-digits, logging sixteen points on 6-of-11 shooting (54.5%), with Chase Conner chipping in with nine off the bench on the strength of three treys. Defensively, nothing they threw at the Cyclones could slow the hosts down, as Iowa State drained 56.5% of their attempts overall, including a stunning 20-of-30 from within the perimeter (66.7%). And if that wasn’t enough, they fouled them twenty-six times, leading to the home side knocking down twenty-one of their thirty free-throws (70.0%). Huggins’ teams have always been physical defensively, oftentimes to a fault, but the disparity in freebies was a huge difference in the game, as the hosts outscored the visitors by fifteen points from the charity stripe alone.
Though they’re still ranked twenty-first in the country, the Mountaineers must find a way to right the ship if they are to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2011-2012 campaign. The Selection Committee isn’t typically favorable to bubble teams that have ended the regular season poorly, even if they’ve faced stiff competition. And that is precisely where Huggins’ charges find themselves; each of their past three defeats have come at the hands of ranked opponents, but the reality is that at some point you have to beat some of them, which they simply haven’t. Outside of the aforementioned Staten, this is a very young group with little experience playing with one another, who has been brutally exposed during this baptism of fire. Offensively, West Virginia has struggled in league play, scoring 70.7 points (4th in Big Twelve) on just 39.3% from the field (8th in Big Twelve), including just 44.9% from within the three-point arc (6th in Big Twelve) and a miserable 28.5% from beyond it (9th in Big Twelve), all the while dishing out 12.8 assists (6th in Big Twelve) and committing 13.9 turnovers per contest (8th in Big Twelve). This just isn’t an efficient team on the offensive end by any means. Case in point; despite shooting so poorly from the perimeter, no team in the Big Twelve has attempted more three-pointers (21.1), with the Mountaineers jacking up one-hundred more threes than their opposition. Only one player (Conner) has shot over 34.0% from downtown in league play, despite four others attempting at least thirty. It’s just not smart basketball, folks. However, on the defensive end they’ve been just as bad, and that’s mostly due to their habit of fouling instead of actually defending. Through a dozen conference tilts, West Virginia has allowed 71.8 points (9th in Big Twelve) on 48.1% shooting from the field (10th in Big Twelve), including 51.8% from within the three-point arc (9th in Big Twelve) and 37.9% from beyond it (10th in Big Twelve). Despite pressuring the ball well, permitting just 11.8 assists (2nd in Big Twelve) and forcing 19.5 turnovers (1st in Big Twelve), that aggressiveness has gone hand-in-hand with recklessness, leading to a rash of fouls. No team in the Big twelve has committed more fouls than Huggins’ crew, and no team has seen their opponents attempt (32.2) and make (21.6) more free-throws. When you have as much trouble as these guys have had scoring, you simply can’t give your opponent extra opportunities from the charity stripe. Not only does it give them cheap points, but it breaks up the rhythm of the game, taking away any chance of the Mountaineers getting out into transition for easy points themselves.