UPDATING THE COWBOYS
WVU started OSU on a six-game losing streak to open conference play, leaving it at the bottom of the conference. However, the Cowboys have since risen from the dead, winning four consecutive games, including three in Big 12 play. Chief among those was a 68-66 rivalry win over Oklahoma, which featured a Phil Forte 3-pointer for the win with 11 seconds to play. This resurgence has put the Cowboys in position to complete for an upper-division finish, but there's still a lot of work to do in that regard.
The winning streak has been largely the result of some defensive changes, which have resulted in much better rebounding and lane coverage. During the current four game winning streak, OSU holds a +9 rebounding advantage over its opponents, and is allowing 16 fewer points in the lane than in its first six Big 12 contests.
Jeffrey Carroll (6-6, 215 lbs.) has been one of the breakout players in the league this year. He's moved into the starting lineup and is now averaging 17.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game – the only Big 12 player to top the 17-7 mark this year. Juwan Evans (6-1, 185 lbs.) and Phil Forte (5-11, 195 lbs.) join him to forge a very good mix of talents and strengths in the backcourt. All three are over the 40% mark from 3-point range, and they spread the floor effectively to get open shots.
Mitchel Solomon (6-9, 245 lbs.) has also moved into a starting role, and is helping shore up a frontcourt that was somewhat lacking in the early going. He's averaging 5.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Leyton Hammonds (6-8, 215 lbs.) has welcomed that help, and while the duo isn't dominant, they have at least been good enough to clean up some perimeter misses and force the opposition to play OSU honestly.
West Virginia begins the back half of the Big 12 conference schedule with a tricky game against a team that is showing improvement. Managing expectations is always a task for coaches in regular season rematches – if your team won the first one, it should cruise in the second. On the flip side, the team that lost is supposedly motivated to avenge the defeat. There's probably more weight on the first side of that equation than the second, so WVU must avoid looking at the Cowboys in the same way they did after defeating them on the road at the end of last year.
|WVU (18-4 / 6-3) vs. OSU (14-8 / 3-6)||Sat Feb 4||5:00 PM EST|
|WVU Coliseum||Morgantown, WV||Series: WVU 6-4|
|RPI: WVU - 25 OSU - 37||TV: ESPNU||Sirius/XM/SiriusXM: 81/81/81|
While WVU will certainly have to focus on the guard play of OSU, and do a very good job of staying with those shooters on the perimeter, that sets up an interesting sideshow inside – and it might wind up being much more than that. With Mountaineer defenders forced to stay close to Evans, Forte and Carroll on the 3-point line, WVU's frontcourt players will have to defend one-on-one, and also keep Hammonds and Solomon off the boards. That's been a hit or miss proposition this year, but in this game at least two, and probably three, of the group of Elijah Macon, Brandon Watkins, Sagaba Konate and Nathan Adrian must keep Hammonds and Solomon suppressed. If either gets into double figures or has a big game on the boards, that will spell trouble for the Mountaineers. (Hammonds had 17 and 7 in the first game.) You can probably add Esa Ahmad to that list – he'll likely draw Carroll as a defensive assignment at the start, but he could be inside if WVU plays a 3-guard set of its own.
Pace of play is also going to be an interesting match-up to watch. WVU is seventh nationally with 87.6 points per game, while OSU is one spot behind at 87.5. Both teams also rate highly in offensive efficiency: the Mountaineers average 1.115 points per possession while the Pokes are in the neighborhood at 1.132. The Cowboys push the ball in all situations, while more of WVU's transition play is based off its defense. If OSU beats the press and hits early shots, it will hold a big advantage, but if the Mountaineers recover well and prevent too many open looks, the momentum swings to the home team.
West Virginia's halfcourt efficiency could be the deciding factor here, but it again depends on the frontcourt players being efficient. Good passing and shot selection from the four and five spots could be the key to a Mountaineer win.
Many individual stats drop during conference play, when tougher competition usually decreases productivity. However, OSU's Forte and Carroll have gone in the opposite direction with their 3-point shooting. In nine league games, Carroll is making a ridiculous 57.1% of his tries, while Forte is swishing 48.3%. That compares to 45.8% and 40.4%, respectively, for all games.
* * * * *
Of WVU's five current starters, four are shooting better from the free throw line in conference play than overall. The exception? Surprisingly, it's Jevon Carter, but the drop-off is small. He has mad 75% on the year, and 73.3% in league games.
Tarik Phillip, Sagaba Konate and Lamont West have also improved their percentages since the start of league play. Overall, WVU is shooting 66.4% from the line, but in the Big 12 that mark is 71.2%. WVU has been over 82% in its last three conference games
* * * * *
Oklahoma State's 3-point shooting prowess is a given, but WVU has the longer streak for makes in consecutive games. The Mountaineers have hit at least one three in 580 contests, besting OSU's current mark of 536.
* * * * *
Brandon Watkins has not scored in three of West Virginia's last four games. He did have solid stints against Texas AM, scoring seven points and grabbing a rebound.