The race for the Big 12 regular season title is heating up in a major way this month, and if West Virginia wants to keep its recently earned place atop the league for more than a couple of days, it will need to take down Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse tonight.
A win over Kansas in Lawrence would not only do wonders for the Mountaineers’ confidence going down the stretch, it would give them a two-game cushion and two head-to-head wins over the Jayhawks with just under a month left in the regular season.
Getting tough road wins is where conference contenders separate themselves from the pretenders. West Virginia has already walked away from one of the Big 12’s toughest venues, Hilton Coliseum, with a win over the Cyclones this season, and it came up just short in Norman against the Sooners in mid-January.
Going two for three on the road against Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas would be a big statement toward the legitimacy of the Mountaineers’ conference title hopes, especially when you consider the status of the other teams vying for the crown.
Oklahoma has looked much more beatable in the last week, during which it lost by 11 on the road against Kansas State and needed some heroics from Buddy Hield to beat Texas by three at home, than it has all season.
The Sooners have been cutting it close in the Big 12 play for some time. Counting Buddy Hield’s go-ahead 3 with 1.3 seconds left against the Longhorns last night, Oklahoma has won four conference games in the final 10 seconds of play.
You can either take that as a sign of things being “meant to be” for Oklahoma this year, or you can choose the school of thought that the Sooners’ cardiac style isn’t exactly sustainable over the full course of a season.
Sitting at 8-3 in the Big 12, Oklahoma is a half game back of West Virginia before tonight’s game, but the Sooners are on the road for four of their last seven conference games, including a trip to Morgantown Feb. 20.
Texas is surging hard toward the top of the conference standings, but its stock took a hit when Hield’s clutch 3 splashed through the net late last night.
If West Virginia can get a win tonight, you can call them the clear-cut front runner in the Big 12 race with seven games to play.
Whenever the Mountaineers get Jonathan Holton back, they figure to only increase their level of play as well. West Virginia has hardened its resolve in a trial by fire without the head of its press in the last few games, which should only be beneficial when he eventually returns.
Tonight’s game is yet another hurdle for the Mountaineers to clear, but this team has proven to be up to the challenge in these big games so far this year. A win tonight certainly won’t seal the deal by any stretch of the imagination, but it would go a long way toward ending Kansas’ reign of dominance in the Big 12.