MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - When you closely examine what West Virginia and Texas have done so far this year, it’s pretty clear that the two teams have a lot in common.
Both have faced pretty tough out-of-conference schedules. Both have experienced head-scratching non-league losses. Both have been blown out by good teams on the road. Both have hall of fame coaches. And both are painfully young.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that both teams are hovering right around the .500 mark - and both are searching for their first Big 12 victory tonight in Austin.
“They are extremely talented and I think Rick (Barnes) has done a great job with a bunch of young guys,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. “He’s got them playing like they are veterans – they are not playing like a bunch of freshmen and sophomores.”
At the very least, Barnes has them playing better of late, an 86-79 overtime loss at Baylor last Saturday notwithstanding. Before that, the Longhorns (8-6, 0-1) had won three of four, including an impressive 85-67 victory over North Carolina on Dec. 19. Also lumped in there was a tough, 67-56, road loss at No. 20 Michigan State on Dec. 22.
In last Saturday’s 67-57 loss to Oklahoma, West Virginia (7-6, 0-1) had trouble handling Oklahoma’s athletic bigs. Forward Romero Osby scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds, including some key baskets down the stretch to lead the Sooners to a 10-point victory.
Tonight, West Virginia is facing a young but talented Texas backcourt featuring 6-4 sophomore guard Sheldon McClellan (15.6 ppg.), 6-3 sophomore guard Julien Lewis (11.8 ppg.) and outstanding freshman point guard Javan Felix (9.6 ppg.). Felix currently leads the Big 12 in assists (6.6 apg.) and minutes played (36.2), and he is coming off a career-high 26 point effort in last Saturday’s loss to Baylor.
“He was terrific,” said Huggins. “He just took over the early part of overtime. He’s got a great knack to get the ball in the lane and he really makes shots for them. He just plays so strong with the ball.”
West Virginia, too, got an impressive performance from a freshman guard last weekend when Terry Henderson
poured in 21 against the Sooners. However, 18 of those came in the first half when the Mountaineers were able to take a six-point lead into the locker room at the break. In the second half, Henderson all but vanished.
“Terry was shooting it pretty well and he made the first one in the second half and then had some pretty good looks and didn’t get any down,” said Huggins.
But what irked Huggins more than missed shots was his team’s inability to get the second and third ones against the Sooners. That has really been a theme really all year.
“We’ve always missed shots,” said Huggins. “Everybody misses shots. Oklahoma missed shots, but they rebounded it. We missed shots and we didn’t. When you don’t make shots you’ve got to find other ways to score and we’ve always been very proficient at scoring on the offensive glass, and obviously we haven’t done that.”
Huggins is also frustrated with the high number of missed opportunities his team has had close to the basket – many of those uncontested misses.
“We missed 11 shots inside of three feet (against Oklahoma),” he pointed out. “I love Oklahoma’s bigs but they’re not shot blockers. They are very skilled guys that shot the ball very well against us, shot it with range, and can really put it on the floor.
“But they’re not like people we’re going to play in the next few games that are among the leaders in blocked shots and changing shots,” Huggins said. “There are just not a lot of reasons why we miss the easy ones that we miss.”
Longhorn bigs Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes don’t score a bunch, but that have combined to block 42 shots so far this season. Texas also has 6-foot-10 freshman Prince Ibeh who can come off the bench and disrupt shots as well. Ibeh, like Ridley and Holmes, doesn’t score a lot but he does show 20 blocks in just 10.4 minutes per game.
And that obviously does not bode well for West Virginia’s bigs. Senior forward Deniz Kilicli
(7.5 ppg. and 4.8 rpg.) has really had a difficult time operating in the paint this year. That’s a decline of more than three points and a half a rebound per game from last season’s averages.
Some of that is likely a result of defenses last year focusing more on forward Kevin Jones and freeing up Kilicli to do his thing on the weakside. This year, teams are ganging up on Deniz and that has made it tougher for him to find room to operate in the paint. Consequently, Kilicli is shooting just 39.1 percent - with most of his shot attempts coming right around the basket.
“How many shots did you see K.J. miss from three feet?” asked Huggins. “We’re getting shots and we’re not making any. The flip side of that is we’re not stopping anybody. Five consecutive possessions Oklahoma got second shots – five. That’s going to happen once in a while, but it’s not supposed to happen five consecutive times.”
With difficult games on the horizon against Kansas State (11-2), at Iowa State (10-3) and at Purdue (which is coming off a recent home win against Illinois), West Virginia is going to have to find some answers quickly.
“In all honesty we’ve put ourselves behind the eight-ball and we need to win games,” said Huggins. “It’s really pretty simple.”
Tipoff is set for 9 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally on ESPN2.