Ready or not, conference play is about to begin. West Virginia opens the Big 12 portion of its schedule on Saturday afternoon at the WVU Coliseum in a 4 p.m. game against a familiar opponent – Oklahoma.
The two met in Orlando, Fla., over Thanksgiving as part of the Old Spice Classic with Oklahoma pulling out a 77-70 non-conference victory over the Mountaineers. In that game, West Virginia shot just 36.2 percent from the floor and allowed Oklahoma to make 47.4 percent of its shot attempts while the Sooners outscored the Mountaineers 32-20 in the paint.
Amath M’Baye (19 points) and Je’lon Hornbeak (14 points) did most of the damage against West Virginia for Oklahoma, now 9-3 following Sunday’s 72-42 blowout victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Oklahoma’s three losses so far this year have come against Gonzaga, Arkansas and Stephen F. Austin, while the Sooners also show a quality non-conference victory over 9-3 Texas A&M.
Romero Osby (12.6 ppg.) and Steven Pledger (11.5 ppg.) are the only Sooner players currently averaging double figures. Oklahoma is shooting 41.8 percent from the floor and just 31.3 percent from 3, but the Sooners are beating people by stopping them. Opponents are averaging only 61.3 points per game and are shooting 40.7 percent overall.
Meanwhile, West Virginia (7-5) boosted its record to two games over .500 for the first time this year with an uneven 74-67 victory over Eastern Kentucky on Sunday that left coach Bob Huggins hot under the collar.
West Virginia had a 16-point first half lead against the Colonels and led by 13 at halftime before allowing Eastern Kentucky to shoot its way back into the game. Eventually, EKU was briefly able to take the lead late in the second half before the Mountaineers responded with some clutch free throw shooting down the stretch to pull out a tight victory.
Huggins is still not happy with where his young basketball team is right now heading into the meat of its schedule.
“Other than doing some really dumb things in stretches in the first half, I thought it kind of looks like my team again,” Huggins said of his team’s first half performance against the Colonels. “Then as soon as I am dumb enough to start thinking that we come out and let them shoot 63 percent in the second half.”
Huggins cited a litany of things his team failed to do in order to close the door on Eastern Kentucky.
“They ask me, ‘How can you hold them to 22 in the first half and they get 45 in the second half?’” said Huggins. “Well, it kind of starts out by having your 6-9, 265-pound center (Deniz Kilicli
) standing wide open under the basket and not throwing him the ball. Then we decide we are going to throw it to him in the high post and they figure out nobody is guarding him and they run over and foul him and he misses two free throws.
“Then we come down and throw it to him and they run over and foul again and he goes one for two from the foul line. In the meantime, they’ve hit a couple of 3s and all of a sudden they’ve got momentum going and we’re kind of hanging our heads. As soon as we didn’t throw him the ball and missed those two free throws I told the guys on the bench, ‘Here it comes.’ It always happens,” Huggins said.
Failing to pass the ball to wide open players, missing uncontested layups and an inability to consistently knock down open looks were major issues for the Mountaineers once again against the Colonels. West Virginia was just 2 of 12 from 3 and finished the game shooting 40.8 percent.
“It’s too hard of a game to look off wide open guys,” said Huggins. “We got it to 14 and we run a really nice back cut and we miss a layup, I mean a wide open layup. You can’t do that. Good teams don’t do that. Teams that get ahead by 14 and then have to come back and fight their (butt) off to win … that’s what we are.”
Offensively, the team is still struggling to find reliable scorers. Just two players are averaging double figures (Juwan Staten
at 11.1 ppg. and Aaric Murray
at 10.7 ppg.) and the Mountaineers are barely shooting 40 percent from the floor. If not for an effective afternoon at the free throw line where West Virginia was able to convert 32 out of 39 against Eastern Kentucky, the Mountaineers would have likely fallen once again.
“We bring it down, we don’t pass it, we don’t hand it off and we dribble it down and run right over a guy,” Huggins explained. “You’ve got to move them before you drive it because they’re all standing in there. So we come down and do the exact same thing a second time – a different guy – but the exact same play and almost in the exact same spot, a charge.”
“Then we try and run some stuff to try and alleviate the pressure and we can’t throw it on the wing and we can’t catch it on the wing. And then we didn’t back cut. We ran three consecutive plays to back cut and we didn’t back cut. We just stood there. It’s frustrating.”
Huggins was asked if he planned to continue spreading teams out by using the dribble drive like West Virginia did on Sunday against Eastern Kentucky. He responded to that question with a question of his own.
“Have you watched Kentucky?” he asked. “They shoot jump shots. They shoot 3s. They don’t get a whole lot of layups. They penetrate and pitch. They penetrate and kick. Look at this stat sheet and you tell me who in the hell you want me to kick it to?”
The Mountaineers are shooting 27.5 percent from 3 as a team and have just one player (freshman Eron Harris
) who is shooting better than 40 percent from behind the arc.
A positive for the Mountaineers heading into this weekend is the fact that the Mountaineers have won all five of their games at the Coliseum this year, including a 68-67 victory over Virginia Tech. And two of Oklahoma’s three losses this year have been away from Lloyd Noble Center.
The Big 12 Network will televise Saturday’s game.