Kevin Kinder \

Hidden Key in West Virginia - Oklahoma Big 12 Semifinal Match-Up

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Oklahoma's Buddy Hield gets the lion's share of attention, and deservedly so, in coverage of the Sooner basketball team, but he may not be the determining factor in the match-up with West Virginia in Friday's Big 12 basketball championship semifinals.

That's no disrespect to Hield, who is the most dangerous scorer in the college game. He proved so again last night with a 39-point effort, two shy of the Sprint Center record, in OU's win over Iowa State. West Virginia actually did a good job against him in a two-point loss in Norman in January, "holding" him to 17 points as the Soonerseked out a 70-68 win. And in the rematch in Morgantown, it felt like the Mountaineers again were mounting a respectable defensive effort, but in the end he poured in 29 as OU grabbed a double-digit road victory. Still, he may not be the key in this third-time-around meeting.

OU has other stars that also offer lots of concern for the Mountaineer coaching staff. Isaiah Cousins  can be dominant in the lane and around the rim, and Kadeem Lattin is an athletic threat. But the guy behind the scenes, the one who makes a bunch of little plays and some really big ones in key situations, is Ryan Spangler. In the first WVU-OU meeting, he scored ten points and had 14 rebounds, and in the return accounted for eight and six, plus a blocked shot. One the season, he's averaging nearly a double-double, with 10.7 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, but no one seems to notice him. That's probably the way he likes it, as in enables him to swoop in at key moments to make big plays while attention is focused on Hield and company.

Take, for example, his play down the stretch in last night's win over Iowa State. With the Sprint Center vibrating like a teenager's cell phone, ISU had just cut its deficit to six points with 4:09 to play. That's when Spangler, as he has done throughout his career, made his mark, He hit a short jumper while being fouled, then converted the free throw to extend the lead to nine. He followed with a steal that cost the Cyclones a critical possession, then grabbed a big defensive board when ISU again had the chance to cut it to four. in the last minute, he added two more rebounds and a pair of free throws to help keep the Sooners in front. While Hield's 39 points got all the attention, Spangler's double-double (10 and 12) were just as important in the victory.

West Virginia must keep Spangler from making such plays if it hopes to move on to Saturday's  championship game. Much of that task will fall on Nathan Adrian, and Jonathan Holton who will have to defend him from the arc to the rim. It can't leave him alone to spot up from 3-point range, and has to find him every time a shot goes up -- otherwise, he's likely to come down with it. They have to put a body on, him, and battle continuously, and basically play him with the intensity they display when executing a trap in the press. Adrian has shown very good open court defensive ability in the second half of the season, and Holton's length and athletic ability give him weapons with which to bother Spangler, so it should be an intriguing battle to track.

This isn't an insurmountable task, but it's a tough one. Hield is likely to get his points, even though WVU isn't going to cede him anything. But the Mountaineers can't pay so much attention to the other Sooners that they fail to account for one of the more underrated performers in the league. A simple look at Spangler's line in the box score after the game will probably be a good indicator of which team won. If he has another double-double, it bodes well for OU. If the Mountaineers can keep him accounted for, they have a chance of reaching their first Big 12 final.

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