The reasoning? WVU is so discombobulated at both ends of the floor right now, it's main opponent is itself. It turned the ball over 23 times against Kansas State and lost by just four points. It badly failed to stop penetration and the straight line drive versus both K-State and Oklahoma, yet had leads in the final five minutes against both. The rebounding was sub par, the rotations poor within the defensive halfcourt and press. It all points to West Virginia's biggest problem being itself as it hits the midpoint of the conference slate.
"We had a 15-point lead and let it go. We weren't executing, we're making rotations," WVU forward Esa Ahmad said. "All that shows. We were just kind of throwing it everywhere, and we have been working on that. I thought we had a great practice (Sunday) and we went over a lot of plays and walked through a lot of stuff."
It was almost a back-to-basics approach, which should serve the Mountaineers well in this contest and beyond. Since the Jan. 10 win against then-No. 1 Baylor, deflections are down, rebounding margin is down, turnovers forced are down. That's to be expected against better competition, but the teams WVU has thus far played - and lost to - hardly represent the gauntlet of the league in Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Kansas State. Consider that over the first seven Big 12 games played, West Virginia (15-4, 4-3) has forced just four more turnovers than it has committed while also, largely due to easy lay-ins around the rim, allowed foes to outshoot it. That's a concern moving forward, and it won't be lessened in this game.
The No. 2 Jayhawks (18-1, 7-0) are among the best transition teams in the country, and have thrived off excellent shooting and the ability to create solid, step-in looks from the perimeter via the drive and kick. Those are two of the areas WVU has struggled with most recently, from tardy help side defense to inability to stay in front of defenders or make them change direction. And against a tall, lengthy line-up which can handle the ball, the on-paper match-up is as difficult as West Virginia has faced this season.
"They are terrific in transition," head coach Bob Huggins said of Kansas. "They have multiple guys who can push the ball. They've got great speed, they are great finishers. I haven't seen anybody near as good in transition as they are. They are running with people then all of the sudden they are laying it in and people are trying to catch them. We can't turn it over. We can't turn it over 23 times, can't have more turnovers than our opposition and win."
West Virginia must also deal with an excellent point guard in Frank Mason, who is averaging more than 20 points per game. Mason, a senior, heads an experienced group for head coach Bill Self in a starting five that shows two seniors, two juniors and a freshman. That's rare in an era where a program that gets the talent of KU typically loses that elite level skill to the NBA prior to their final one or two seasons. It's made this year's Kansas team as dangerous as any Self has had as the Jayhawks have ripped off 18 straight wins after an opening game loss to then-No. 11 Indiana.
"He's always been really good player," Nate Adrian said of Mason. "He is shooting the ball well for them and making plays like he always has. We are going to try to take him away maybe more than other point guards. It's a matter of doing it. It's getting back to doing what we do. As long as we do that, we are a pretty good team. We've showed that in the past. It's not an easy process. We have to go win some tough games now."
That starts tonight. But the Mountaineers must be careful not to weigh purely the outcome of the clash with Kansas as the de facto measure of success. WVU could well play its best game of the season and suffer a defeat. What is must focus in upon is improving its overall quality of play, even by modest measures, in an attempt to begin to become regain some of the semblance of effort and execution lacking over the past three games.
"I gotta get back to being aggressive. I feel like I haven't been aggressive and haven't been putting enough pressure on defenses," Ahmad sad. "That's what I am going to do. Go have fun and give effort, 110 percent out there. I haven't been doing that myself and I want to improve upon that. We have to move on and get the next one. We know we are going to have adversity, we know we have to stick together. That's what we have been doing and we are looking to get this win coming up."