UPDATING THE LONGHORNS
Since using wins over Iowa State, Oklahoma State and West Virginia as a springboard for a 7-1 run in Big 12 play, the Horns have dropped consecutive contest to ranked Oklahoma and ISU, dropping them back into a three-way tie for fourth in the conference race. Barring a major collapse down the stretch, they should still be in line for an NCAA bid, but getting a second win over the Mountaineers would do much to bolster their chances. UT still has Baylor, OU and Kansas remaining on its league schedule, and although all of those games are at home, it likely views this contest as a critical one.
Texas continues to be a guard-dominated team under coach Shaka Smart, who has done an excellent job of reshaping UT from a plodding, big-man dominated group to one that plays with more emphasis on its guards. That has been accelerated with the absence of hulking center Cameron Ridley, who remains sidelined with a broken foot, but the Longhorns have made those adjustments well. Guards Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix are the double-digit scorers at 15.2 and 11.1 points per game respectively, with the former handling the ball quite well. He has a 2.8-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, but that has been on the rise in the conference, where he sports a better than four-to-one mark.
The key for UT has been in getting contributions up and down the lineup to replace Ridley, rather than putting the onus on one or two players to match all of his considerable contributions. Seniors Connor Lammert and Prince Ibeh have increased their scoring and work on the boards, and subs such as Tevin Jack, Eric Davis and Kerwin Roach – all freshmen – have also been on the rise. That UT has been able to weather the loss of Ridley while also modifying its style of play from a year ago is one of the underappreciated storylines of the Big 12, and it certainly has Smart in competition, along with WVU head coach Bob Huggins, for league coach of the year honors.
West Virginia probably can’t shoot any worse than it did in its loss to the Longhorns on Jan. 20, but that’s not the biggest challenge facing the Mountaineers.
|WVU (20-5 / 9-3) vs. UT 16-9 / 7-5)||Tue Feb 16||7:00 PM EST|
|Erwin Center||Austin, TX||Series: UT 7-4|
|RPI: WVU - 11 UT - 21||TV: ESPN2||Sirius/XM: 93/199|
The task here may be a mental one. WVU has had trouble battling against UT’s size in previous years, and although they might have appeared to do so in this year’s game in Morgantown, it’s still something to watch for. The Mountaineers did have 49 rebounds in the first meeting, but much of that was due to its miserable 31% shooting from the field, which made rebounds more available than a beer on Sixth Street in Austin. And although Texas was credited with just one blocked shot in that game, it altered many, with Ibeh and Lammert challenging in the lane.
To overcome that, West Virginia has to drive the ball, but it can’t try to contort and flip shots around or under defenders. It has to attack, use the tightly-called contact rules to its advantage, and then convert from the foul line—all things that it didn’t do in the first match-up this year.
Another item to watch is West Virginia’s recommitment to its pressure game for all 40 minutes against the excellent ballhandling of the Longhorns. The Mountaineers managed just eight forced turnovers in the first meeting, with the guard combination of Taylor and Felix suffering just one in a combined 65 minutes of action. While the turnover numbers might be lessened due to UT’s unhurried style of play, WVU must figure out a way to disrupt it more on the offensive end. The Horns are 277th nationally in possessions per game with 69.1, so that obviously can push all types of stats down in terms of total numbers. WVU, (97th with 73.3 per outing), will look to keep the pace higher and try to force giveaways via errant passes and bad decisions. That’s a tougher task against the experienced Longhorns, though, so the game may again come down to the team that simply takes the most advantage of the chances it does get.
West Virginia is 36-1 in its last 37 games when holding opponents to 69 points or fewer. That defeat, of course, came at the hands of Texas, whose 56 points was enough to defeat the cold-shooting Mountaineers last month.
Kansas gets tons of well-deserved acclaim for its outstanding home record, but UT’s in nothing to sneeze at either. Over the past 14 years, the Longhorns are 203-27 at home. That’s an .883 winning percentage.
Jonathan Holton’s four-game suspension probably cost him a shot at the single-season offensive rebounding record at WVU. Kevin Jones holds the top spot with 141 in the 2011-12 season, and Holton was in position to at least challenge that mark before missing the quartet of games. Averaging right at four offensive boards per outing, a full 35-game schedule (that includes the assumption of two Big 12 tournament and two NCAA games) would have put Holton at 140.
West Virginia is fourth in the nation in defensive efficiency, allowing foes just .884 points per possession. Valparaiso, Wichita State and Louisville are the only teams ahead of the Mountaineers.