Mountaineers to Face Difficult Stretch
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia is in the midst of playing its best basketball of the season, the Mountaineers coming off consecutive Big 12 victories over Texas Tech, Texas and TCU.
WVU has shot the ball well during this most recent stretch, converting 51.6 percent of its field goal attempts overall and 51.2 percent from behind the 3-point arc. That is in stark contrast to what the Mountaineers were shooting in previous games.
“We’ve finally made some shots,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. “In at least two of the three, we’ve shot over 50 percent. For us, when we make shots, that gives us a chance.”
In its most recent victory at TCU last Saturday afternoon, West Virginia got 17 points off the bench from freshman Terry Henderson on 5 of 6 shooting, and 14 from freshman starting guard Eron Harris.
Those two freshmen are becoming the team’s most dependable scorers, Harris reaching double figures in seven of his last eight games to boost his overall scoring average to 8.5 points per game. Henderson, meanwhile, has been a little more up and down, but he has produced some of West Virginia’s top scoring performances this season – specifically the 23 he got against fourth-ranked Michigan in New York back in December, the 21 he scored in the Big 12 opener against Oklahoma and the 17 points he produced most recently at TCU.
The Mountaineers are also getting better play out of senior forward Deniz Kilicli, who is shooting at better than a 50-percent clip from the floor in West Virginia’s last three wins to boost his season shooting mark to 45 percent.
Jabarie Hinds scored 14 in the Big Monday win over Texas and followed that up with 12 points at TCU. The sophomore guard is now averaging eight points per game. Junior forward Aaric Murray has had his moments, too, scoring 17 points and grabbing seven rebounds in a recent loss to Kansas and adding 12 in a recent win at Texas Tech. Murray continues to lead the team in scoring, averaging 9.5 points per game.
Now on Wednesday night, West Virginia will get a true gauge of how much it has improved when it takes on Baylor in Waco.
Baylor has perhaps the best player in the Big 12 this year in senior guard Pierre Jackson, who is averaging a team-best 19.1 points per game. Last year when West Virginia faced Baylor in Las Vegas, it was Jackson, not first-round pick Perry Jones, III, who lit up the Mountaineers. Jackson scored 23, including hitting the game-tying 3 with 15.4 seconds left to send the game into overtime.
“He beat us scoring a year ago,” said Huggins. “I think he is one of the best players in the league. He can really score the ball and he does a great job of coming off screens. They do a great job of ball screening for him and they can get you spread because they have a number of other guys very capable of making shots as well.”
Seven-foot freshman center Isaiah Austin (14 ppg., 9.7 rpg.) and 6-foot-9 junior forward Cory Jefferson (12.7 ppg., 8.4 rpg.) are also having good years.
The Bears are certainly not infallible, losing eight times already this season, including three times at home, but a victory over Baylor would easily be West Virginia’s best this year. The Mountaineers come into Wednesday night’s game with a 12-11 overall record and a 5-5 mark in Big 12 play, yet all five of their league victories have come against teams at the bottom of the conference standings.
At the same time, the Mountaineers have played several teams above them down to the wire, losing competitive games at home to Kansas State, Oklahoma and Kansas while also losing by two on the road at Iowa State.
“We’ve been real close,” Huggins said. “We were real close to beating Kansas State here. We were real close to beating Iowa State at Iowa State. We never really got over the hump and finished the game.”
At this point, West Virginia owns only one victory over a team with a winning record (19-6 Eastern Kentucky) and the Mountaineers do have quality non-league losses to 23-2 Gonzaga and 21-3 Michigan, but even if you flipped a couple of close defeats against 7-16 Duquesne and 17-7 Davidson, a 14-9 record at this point would still not be enough to get the Mountaineers on the NCAA tournament bubble.
That’s how much of a hole West Virginia is in right now with roughly a month left of the regular season to play, but it’s certainly not a deep enough hole that it can’t dig itself out considering what is left on the schedule.
After Baylor on Wednesday and then 9-12 Texas Tech at the Coliseum on Saturday, the remaining six games on West Virginia’s schedule features teams that are currently on the inside looking out in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology rankings. In fact, five of the six currently have RPIs of 37 or better.
Kansas State owns a 19-5 record; Oklahoma State is 17-5, Baylor is 15-8, Kansas is 20-4, Oklahoma is 16-7 and Iowa State is 16-7. Add all of those up and the combined record of those remaining six teams is 118-44.
That poses a significant challenge for the Mountaineers, but it also provides them with an opportunity to right the ship if they can knock some of those teams off.
“Hopefully we have enough confidence now, but we’re just so young, particularly in the backcourt,” said Huggins. “When you play two freshmen and three sophomores, we still have a lot of youth there and I think they’re growing up.”
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