Raymond Carlin III \ USAToday Sports Images

West Virginia Finishes Four Spots Higher Than Predicted As Bob Huggins Remains In Race For Big 12 Coach of the Year

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia has sealed up a much-deserved two-seed in the Big 12 Tournament, completing a season sweep of Baylor via the 69-58 win in Waco.

Now, there's really just one question left: Is Bob Huggins the conference Coach of the Year? The No. 10 Mountaineers, now 24-7, 13-5 in the nation's toughest conference, used its prototypical pressure, tenacity and depth to wear down the Bears. WVU turned a three-point halftime edge into a 47-31 lead with 11 minutes left, then held on with a series of timely scores and defensive stands.

There were multiple steals and strips, West Virginia anticipating BU's moves and beating them to the pass. There were the fantastic assists, led by Jevon Carter's backwards flip to Jonathan Holton for a dunk. Esa Ahmad made huge plays, perhaps the biggest a jumper after peeling off a screen. Ishmail Wainright's foul turned that into a three-point play to put WVU ahead 62-51.

A couple possessions later, Ahmad drew the fifth foul on Rico Gathers, sending the senior to the bench for the final time in his regular season career. Ahmad hit both free throws for a 66-52 lead with 1:52 left, and it was all but finalized from there. The statistical line was equally impressive, the Mountaineers hitting 45.7 percent from the field while holding BU to just 36.5. West Virginia had advantages in points in the paint (34-20), bench points (35-14) and, especially, points from the line (23-14), which helped offset a deficit in turnovers forced (13-16) and rebounding (32-34).

"We didn't play very well the first half," Huggins said. "We didn't run offense. They are really long and really athletic and so we tried to spread them out more in the second half, then we threw in some of the three-man stuff. Esa made a big shot. Jaysean (Paige) made plays, Dax made plays."

It was another across-the-board effort that was best surmised by Huggins when he said that it was "kinda like we always do. You never know who is going to make plays, but somebody generally does."

Which is what makes West Virginia so dangerous, and Huggins a prime Coach of the Year candidate. These Mountaineers have jelled, and they are getting contributions from all over the floor. And it's not just on the offensive end, WVU having held Baylor without a field goal for a 9:05 stretch in the midst of the game.

"That's the best game Jevon Carter has played since he has been here," Huggins said. "He's really starting to think like a point guard now. We are getting smarter on the defensive end. We aren't having to think about things. It seemed like every time they made a run, we came up with a loose ball."

Which has been, for the most part, the story of the season. With respect to Bill Self, who simply does his job year after year - KU won its 12th consecutive Big 12 regular season title - and Texas Tech's Tubby Smith, whose team was picked last but will finish in eight place, no league coach has done more than Huggins this season.

Objectively, one could look at the preseason predictions and conclude that the No. 1 Jayhawks did what they were supposed to, and there's incredible value in meeting that high standard. Self and Huggins have split the last six meetings, each team defending home court. Smith was swept by both, however, and the Mountaineers were the program that most spectacularly exceeded expectations, finishing second when predicted sixth. And that's playing 10 games against ranked foes, and finishing 5-5 in such contests, while also completing series sweeps against six of nine Big 12 foes. WVU also won 10 true road games, including a 6-3 mark in the conference.

It all combined to lock up West Virginia's highest seeding for a conference postseason tournament in 27 years. Not since Gale Catlett's 1988-89 team won the Atlantic-10 have the Mountaineers finished higher than third place. Never in its final six seasons in the A-10, it's 17 seasons in the Big East, or its first three years in the Big 12.

Huggins' 2010 Final Four team? Third in the Big East. John Beilein's Elite Eight and Sweet 16 teams? Seventh and third, respectively. Last season's Mountaineers tied for third, then promptly lost to this same Baylor program for the third time that year in the Big 12 Tournament before winning two games in the NCAAs.

But this is setting up to be among the most promising of postseasons, as the Mountaineers will face the winner of Texas Tech-TCU in the Big 12's second round at 7 p.m. on Thursday for a chance to move onto the semifinals played on Friday night. If West Virginia can clean up its mistakes in transition, Huggins believes this team is capable of a major run.

"We do the dumbest things in transition. If we are really going to make  a deep run we are going to have to score the ball better," Huggins said, before making his last comment - which also might have been his best.

"I like where we are."


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