\ Kevin Kinder

West Virginia Preps For Big 12 Championship Filled With Excellent Backcourt Play

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - In a Big 12 Conference routinely ranked as the best in the nation, point guard play will be at a premium in the postseason championship this week.

With players like Kansas' Frank Mason, Iowa State's Monte Morris, Oklahoma State's Jawun Evans and West Virginia's Jevon Carter, among others, the Big 12 figures to have the most stacked point guard play of any conference tournament. Mason and Morris were named to multiple All-American teams, while Evans joined them as a first-team All-Big 12 selection. Carter was the league's Defensive Player of the Year, and even league newcomers like Baylor's Manu Lecomte and TCU's Jaylen Fisher have made instant impacts on their teams in navigating a conference atop the latest BPI rankings.

It's among the reasons, along with a field that has even 10th-seeded Texas rated among the top 80 in BPI the country, that this year's Big 12 championship expects to be incredibly entertaining in terms of backcourt play. Long known as a conference filled with versatile, athletic players, the point guard position is the headlining act. The stat lines bear that out, with the Big 12's leader in scoring, assists, steals, three-point percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio and minutes played, among others, led by a point guard. 

The most dynamic of them offensively is KU's Mason, whose 20.5 points per game top the league, along with his 49.3 percent shooting from three-point range. Head coach Bill Self has played the senior a conference-most 36.1 minutes per game on average, six more per game than West Virginia's Nate Adrian, who Bob Huggins acknowledges has played too much in stretches this season. Mason surged to the Conference Player of the Year honors, and anchored No. 1 Kansas' run to a 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title, tying it with UCLA (1967-79) for the most in Division I history.

"He makes big shots. He's continually in attack mode," Huggins said. "You can't ever relax. He is going to get it at the rim. I think the improvement he has made from year three to year four is phenomenal and it took a whole lot of work. He had to put an enormous amount of time in the gym. It's good to see somebody who works that hard get the accolades he deserves."

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His counterpart on the defensive side is Carter. The junior leads the No. 11 Mountaineers (24-7, 12-6) in points (12.9), minutes (31.4), assists (123) and steals (85), the latter of which also leads the conference and ranks seventh nationally in average per game at 2.74. Carter has been able to push through aching knees and slump in the midst of league play that saw him fail to reach double figures in scoring in four of five games while his assist-to-turnover ratio also dropped. He has rebounded, pun intended as he's second on the team behind Adrian at five per game, to average 17.7 points per game during a closing 5-2 stretch that helped West Virginia secure the second seed behind Kansas, and thus a favorable quarterfinal round match-up against the winner of seventh-seeded Texas Tech and the 10-seed Longhorns.

"I kept watching game film and (analysts) put the top five (Big 12) point guards up and our guy was never in there," Huggins said. "If Jevon Carter is not in the top five in any league in America it is one heck of a league. But its hard to argue with the five they put up there. The five they put up there are awfully good. He's our leading scorer. He leads us in assists, steals. He is our second-leading rebounder. He has exceptional lateral quickness. His work ethic, his competitiveness, is second-to-none. He puts an enormous amount of time in the gym, the weight room, making sure he is prepared to go. The quality of depth at the point guard position in our league (is excellent)."

West Virginia opens its postseason play on Thurs. March 9 in Kansas City, facing the winner of Tech and Texas. The Mountaineers, 2-4 all-time in the Big 12 Tournament, need one win to reach a league championship semifinal for the fifth time in their last 10 appearances. WVU tied the school record for regular season wins with 24, matching the 1982, '89, 2010 and 2016 teams. The 1982 and '89 teams both failed to win the postseason league championship and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The 2010 team won the Big East title and went to the Final Four, while the '16 squad lost in the Big 12 championship game before being upset in the first round in the NCAAs - meaning regular season success hasn't directly translated to the unforgiving, one-game elimination format of the postseason.

"I think the difference is the finality," Huggins said in comparing the regular and postseasons. "You can't say OK on to the next game because there aren't any."

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