As West Virginia’s men’s basketball team prepares to host Texas on Saturday, it will be facing an opponent that is seeing it all come together.
The Longhorns, who are ranked No. 4 this week, are 3-0 in the Big 12 and 9-1 overall, with only a narrow 68-64 loss to Villanova blotting its record.
With six seniors and three juniors on the roster, UT is benefiting from a vast amount of experience. Add in the presence of expected one-and-done freshman big man Greg Brown, and Texas is knocking off opponents with a balanced combination of contributors that has kept it mostly impervious when one or two players have an off night.
Up front, Brown (6-9, 205 lbs.) and senior Jericho Sims (6-10, 245 lbs) lead the team in rebounding with averages of 7.3 and 6.8 respectively. Brown is one of four Longhorns scoring in double figures (12.0), joining guards Matt Coleman (13.7), Courtney Ramey (13.3) and Andrew Jones (13.1). Toss in Kai Jones’ 8.9 and Sims 6.9, and there is no one in the top seven that can be ignored, although Jones’ shooting percentages of 38.1 and 27.8 are significantly lower than those of his teammates.
|West Virginia (9-3/2-2) vs. Texas (9-1/3-0)||Sat Jan 9 1:00 PM ET|
|WVU Coliseum||Morgantown, WV||TV: ESPN|
|NET: WVU-19 UT-9||Series: UT 12-9||Last Game: UT 67-57|
|Twitter: @BlueGoldNews||Facebook: BlueGoldNews||Web: BlueGoldNews.com|
WVU head coach Bob Huggins believes the difference in this Texas teams and ones of the past few years is in the backcourt.
“The difference in their team is the experience they have at their guard positions,” he said, touching on veterans such as Coleman, Ramey and Jones. “They are playing extremely well. They know what (head coach) Shaka (Smart) wants done. It’s the best team they’ve had by far (since we have been playing them).”
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While West Virginia’s shooting accuracy remains a concern, the bigger issue to be solved is its defense. Closeouts on the perimeter and decision-making have been spotty, and now the Mountaineers will face a team that starts two bigs, giving it a noticeable size advantage. Four of five ‘Horn starters are unafraid to hoist threes, making ball screens an item to be concerned about, along with pick and rolls and pick and pops. In short, Texas can attack and score from anywhere.
“We did a good job last game,” Huggins said of his team’s defense on the perimeter. “We had some guys for a variety of different reasons didn’t get to where they needed to get. When that happens you aren’t going to be very successful.”
Taz Sherman, one of WVU’s guards who has heard repeated instructions about cutting down the floor, trying to keep the ball on one side and preventing reversals, knows that West Virginia’s performance without the ball is the key to upsetting the streaking visitors.
“We have to defend and we have to box out,” said WVU’s senior guard. “We have to slow down their transition offense.”
Backcourt mate Deuce McBride detailed one of the tougher jobs in playing defense against a good shooting team that spreads the floor.
“Probably closing out,” the sophomore point guard said of the process of playing help side defense when the ball is opposite, then getting back out to cover an opponent on the perimeter when the ball gets moved quickly. “I think almost any of my teammates would say that closing out is the hardest thing to do.”
Fans often complain about the yielding of open perimeter shots, but there are few defenders in the nation that can stop drives from the perimeter consistently without a bit of assistance. Thus, the assignments for help from the side of the court away from the ball puts defenders in conflict, similar to the way an RPO in football forces one defender to make a choice. Without help, the basket is open for dribble-drive penetration.
Help side defense is never going to be perfect, but McBride acknowledges that it’s an aspect of the game he and his teammates must improve upon.
“When teams zip it around and you let a team move it easily, it’s hard to make some of those long closeouts,” he noted.
The key is to prevent ball reversal, or force it to swing so far from the hoop that there is time to recover before it gets to its intended destination. Again, though, that’s easier said than done.
Huggins has also revealed that the Mountaineers are suffering physically. In addition to Sean McNeil’s toe issue, junior forward Derek Culver has been battling several bumps and bruises, including an apparent shoulder problem that saw him sporting K-Tape in West Virginia’s most recent game. The Mountaineers also have two players saddled with the flu (not COVID-19), which has hindered their ability to practice this week.
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Critics of West Virginia’s free throw shooting are relying more on historical reference than this year’s performance. The Mountaineers are making 70.4% as a team this year, led by Emmitt Matthews’ 24-27 showing (88.9%). One-game marks also haven’t been overly significant. In WVU’s nine wins, it has made 70.3% of its chances from the stripe. In its three losses, it has actually been a bit better at 70.7%.
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On Monday, Bob Huggins recorded his 300th career victory at his alma mater. Only Gale Catlett (1979-2002) has won more games at WVU with 439. Is that mark reachable for Huggs?
Whether or not he reaches that, his bona fides are well-established. He’s now just the second coach to win at least 300 games at two different Division I schools (WVU – 300
and Cincinnati – 399), joining Roy Williams (Kansas and North Carolina). He’s 10 wins away from 900, and in a race with Williams (892) to see who joins the four other coaches in that elite club.
Nominated for the fourth time for a spot in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, there are no reasons that he should not be elected this year.