It's easy to hand out the accolades after this one, as West Virginia dominated the final 30 minutes of the 74-63 win over Kansas. The primary question is where to begin? In a game in which Jaysean Paige was brilliant, scoring a career-high 26 points, in which Devin Williams controlled the interior against vaunted Big 12 first team forward Perry Ellis, in which the WVU bench managed a whopping 40-10 edge in points, where does one start to break it down? The Mountaineers did everything they needed to in valuing the ball - the team had just 11 turnovers while forcing Kansas into a season-worst 22 - and in hitting clutch free throws throughout the game and down the stretch.
"I thought we did a pretty good job," head coach Bob Huggins deadpanned afterward.
West Virginia ran Kansas off the three point line effectively late, when it was crunch time and the Jayhawks tried to turn to a key to their offensive prowess. It played dogged, determined defense in stifling an offense that had averaged the second-most points in the NCAA at 88, and they thwarted any thoughts that perhaps this group might not quite be at top-shelf status along the lines of Oklahoma or the Big 12's blue blood in KU. For now, West Virginia flatly belongs in the nation's Top 10, and it's there in one poll. Win at Oklahoma on Saturday, and that shiny new ranking is likely among the top five.
But first things first. Before turning to the next game on a night marred by wintry conditions outside, the interior of the Coliseum was as warm and welcoming as ever to a team that's flashing the truly legendary style of Bob Huggins. West Virginia outrebounded Kansas 41-39 overall, 15-7 on the offensive glass to score 16 second-chance points. It had a 32-18 advantage in points in the paint. It had 18 points off turnovers, allowing Kansas just eight of its own. And that bench, behind Paige's 26, decimated KU and allowed West Virginia to showcase superior depth when that was a concern coming again against a Bill Self-coached team that used eight off the pine itself.
Led, again, by Paige, West Virginia also drove the ball effectively. Tarik Phillip and Jevon Carter were also contributors to this, though none were able to finish while taking contact as well as Paige. Huggins called the guard his most athletic player, and one strong enough to absorb body blows and still find the bucket.
"I thought it gaave us the best chance to win," Huggins said of his choice to spread the floor and allow dribble penetration instead of the standard motion offensive sets. "The way the game's being called, it's hard to guard the ball. We tried to kind of revamp some things and keep therm spread to be able to get guys at the basket."
Phillip missed eight of nine from the field, but hit five free throws and was steady with the ball, committing just one turnover. Carter hit both of his three-pointers, a key in a game in which WVU missed nine of 12 overall, and finished with 10 points and five rebounds. It was, frankly, a remarkable overall showing in what at times almost seemed like a routine win with the way the Mountaineers were ahead for 33:43 of the 40 minutes.
Kansas, after all, never led following the 12:27 mark of the first half, and indeed trailed from 11:41 onward after Nathan Adrian drilled the only other Mountaineer three of the game for a 17-14 lead. The advantage was 37-29 at the break, and even a more back-and-fourth first half was largely controlled by the home team. By the half, the Mountaineer bench had already racked up a 26-2 edge in points, mostly behind 17 points from Paige, including a 9-of-11 effort from the line. The press, meanwhile, was effective even against KU's three-guard look, including a pair of point-style players in Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham.
"The game in a nutshell is that they were so much more aggressive and quicker," Self said. "They were way more athletic than we were and played above the rim. We didn't do any of that. They beat us off the bounce whenever they wanted to and exposed our perimeter defense. They got after us and caused us to play that way."
That's an astounding statement in itself, that West Virginia was far more athletic than a team that brings two McDonald's All-Americans off the bench alone. But the stat lines hold true, as does the eye test. WVU forced 12 turnovers over the first 20 minutes, directly scoring seven points off the miscues. Add in a plus-seven margin on the offensive glass and a 16-10 edge in points in the paint, and the Mountaineers had done exactly what they wanted to offset Kansas' advantages in shooting and three pointers. That remained the mantra in the second half, and it worked to such near perfection that the lead eventually ballooned to as much as 14, the first time at 63-49 on a free throw by Paige with 2:46 to play. The Mountaineers, perhaps most impressively, set the stage for the second half by opening with six of the first seven points to turn the 37-29 score into 43-30 wth 16 minutes remaining.
"We shot 33 percent and had control of the game for the majority of it," Huggins said. "It shows that you don't always have to make shots. Eventually you have to make some shots. But you can do some other things. You can try to turn people over, you can offensively rebound it. You got to get more possessions than other people have when you don't shoot it well. That's a fact."
The lead was so large that even a 9-0 run by the Jayhawks got them no closer than four before a couple of buckets from Paige and Phillip restored order. And so it was that there might be a lack of it right now in the Big 12, which sees West Virginia leading the charge at 15-1 overall - the team's best start since the 1981-82 team started 24-1 - and 4-0 in the league, another school first. In second place? Kansas, followed by Oklahoma, setting up what could be a spectacular week. It begged the question what, exactly, the victory meant to Huggins.
"It means (the players) get a day off, then we go back to work on Thursday and Friday we get on a plane to go to Norman and play the second-ranked team in the country," Huggins said. "That's what it means."
That, and just a little bit more.