7:00 PM EST, ESPN2 – Line: Texas -2, Over/Under: 137.5
A top-25 clash is on tap from Austin, Texas, as the tenth-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers look to avenge an earlier defeat at the hands of the twenty-fourth-ranked Texas Longhorns. After a stellar 15-1 start culminating in a statement-making 74-63 victory over Kansas, the Mountaineers (20-5, 9-3, 1st in Big XII) appeared poised to end the Jayhawks’ lengthy reign atop the Big XII. However, despite still sitting atop the conference, things have taken a sharp curve recently, as Bob Huggins’ charges have dropped four out of their past nine outings. Coinciding with a suspension to Senior Forward Jonathan Holton (which has since been lifted), West Virginia struggled without arguably their most versatile player, not to mention one of their foremost leaders; Holton was the proverbial Jack of All Trades, averaging 9.9 points on 55.2% shooting from the field, along with 7.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals, and a team-high 26.4 PER (Player Efficiency Rating). Upon his return, the upperclassman featured prominently in last weekend’s 73-42 drubbing of TCU, scoring a team-high fourteen points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field (75.0%), including seven rebounds, five assists, and a pair of steals despite coming off the Bench. Holton did a superb job of helping key the Mountaineers’ suffocating Press Defense, which absolutely confounded Texas Christian for the entire forty minutes of play. The hosts relegated the visiting side to a dismal 33.3% shooting from the floor, including a dreadful 12-of-37 (32.4%) from inside the three-point arc, while forcing a staggering twenty-six turnovers. Anyone who has seen this team play this year, knows that their gameplan is predicated on outworking the opposition be virtue of turnovers and second-chance opportunities , which was certainly the case against the Horned Frogs; Huggins’ kids were in rare form, not only racking up twenty-six takeaways, but outrebounding the opposition 48-35, including 15-5 on the offensive glass. After all, when one team shoots just 15-of-45 from the field, there are going to be A LOT of opportunities to rebound the basketball. Hell, the Mountaineers missed more than a few shots themselves (24-of-64, 37.5%), but compensated for that with volume, attempting nineteen more field goals, while also making a healthy living at the charity stripe, where they knocked down 21-of-34 free throws (61.8%), a dozen more than the visitors. It’s been all about defense in Morgantown, where West Virginia ranks among the top of the conference in a plethora of categories, allowing 67.7 points (2nd in Big XII) on 41.6% shooting from the field (3rd in Big XII), including 45.8% from within the three-point arc (3rd in Big XII) and 33.2% from beyond it (3rd in Big XII), along with 10.8 assists (1st in Big XII), while leading the conference in steals (111) and turnovers (200). Furthermore, no team in the league has relinquished fewer field goals (251) and field goal attempts (603) than the Mountaineers, who also have paced the entire country in steals (261). As eluded to earlier, their penchant for wrecking havoc on the defensive end creates the necessary opportunities to supplement their own meager offense, which oftentimes struggles to create for itself in the Halfcourt. They’re middle-of-the-pack in terms of offensive efficiency (42.9%), and very poor from long range (30.6%), but make up for it on the offensive glass where their 14.5 boards per game on the offensive end leads the league. Forwards Devin Williams and the aforementioned Holton are extremely active on the glass, securing over seven offensive rebounds between them per game. Oh, and we’d be remiss if we failed to mention this team’s uncanny knack for getting to the free throw line, where they lead the Big Twelve in free-throws made (237) and attempted (363). Granted, the majority of their conference tilts feature a ton of freebies, for no team in the league has been fouled more times than these guys (289), nor committed as many as the Mountaineers (284).
Meanwhile, Year One has been an inconsistent one for Shaka Smart, who in his first year on the sidelines in Austin, has Texas (16-9,7-5, 4th in Big XII) back in the AP Poll and on the march for an NCAA bid. It’s clear that Smart has prescribed to the theory of baptism by fire, as his young charges have sustained the toughest schedule in the country, with eight games against Top 25 teams, going a respectable 4-5 in the process. Of course, playing in a conference such as the Big XII will make any team subject to a tough schedule, which currently has the Longhorns in the midst of a crucial stretch in which they have faced four straight ranked opponents, including six in a treacherous seven-game stretch. Coming into tonight’s contest, Texas has dropped each of their past two outings against the likes of third-ranked Oklahoma (60-63) and Iowa State (75-85). Against the Cyclones, Smart’s kids ultimately ran out of gas, as they were outscored 49-41 over the final twenty minutes of play. Offensively, they struggled mightily, managing just 41.2% shooting from the field, including a dreadful 8-of-28 from beyond the arc (28.6%), with nearly as many turnovers (eleven) as assists (thirteen). Conversely, every attempt to slow down the home side was for naught, as Iowa State shot a blistering 55.4% from the floor, including 6-of-11 from three (54.5%). One of the big differences though came form the free throw line, where the hosts calmly knocked down 17-of-25 freebies (68.0%), while the visiting side made the most of their limited attempts (11-of-13, 84.6%). Defensive stalwart Prince Ibeh in particular succumbed to foul trouble, limited to just nineteen minutes before fouling out with ten points seven rebounds and a block. Without any deterrent at the rim, it was basically open season on the Longhorns. However, don’t let the outcome of that game fool you, for this team has made sizable strides under the guidance of Smart, who has imported his relentless pressing style of play from VCU, where he was so successful over the past six years. In league play, no team has conceded fewer points than Texas (66.8), who have also employed suffocating pressure on the perimeter, with their conference opponents shooting a mere 32.7% from distance, the lowest figure in the Big XII. Furthermore, they’ve permitted the fewest three-pointers in that regard (66), leading to a significant advantage, outscoring the opposition by 4.0 points per game from three. That was precisely the case in the previous meeting with the Mountaineers, a 56-49 victory in Morgantown. In an all-around ugly game that featured both teams shooting well below 40.0% from the field, the visiting side managed to smell just a bit fresher than their ungracious hosts, making 6-of-15 attempts from long range (40.0%) opposed to a miserable 3-of-21 (14.3%) for then sixth-ranked West Virginia, besting them by nine points. The charity stripe also played a rather large role in the outcome, as the teams accounted for fifty-three free throw attempts, but where the home side could only manage eight points from the line, the ‘Horns made eighteen. Javan Felix was the lone Texas player to score in double-figures, registering seventeen points on 4-of-9 shooting from the field (44.4%), including 2-of-3 from beyond the arc (66.7%), along with a pair of rebounds and steals, with an assist. The Junior has formed a potent Backcourt pairing with Sophomore Isaiah Taylor, with the two accounting for 28.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 7.2 assists, and 2.4 steals in Big XII play. However, Texas has been without a very BIG piece this year, as Senior Center Cameron Ridley and his 6-9, 2285 lbs frame has missed all but eleven games with a broken foot; the big man was a force in the painted area, averaging 12.7 points on a team-high 63.2% shooting from the floor, along with 10.0 rebounds, and a staggering 3.4 blocks. The aforementioned Ibeh has been able to supplement some of his defensive presence, but has struggled to fill the void on the offensive end.