Sixth-Ranked WVU Faces Biggest Test Of Season In No. 7 Sooners
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – To state West Virginia’s next challenge is its most difficult of the season isn’t a stretch.
The No. 6 Mountaineers (13-1, 2-0) play host to No. 7 Oklahoma (12-1, 2-0) on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. in a sold out contest. The teams are part of a three-way tie for first place in the Big 12, both having logged a pair of opening-week wins in conference play. WVU won two on the road, beating Oklahoma State and Kansas State, while the Sooners took out a then-Top 10 TCU program 90-89 in Fort Worth before blowing out OSU 109-89 at home.
The primary talking point – pun intended – has been OU guard Trae Young. The freshman, considered an NBA lottery pick by some pundits, has averaged 29.4 points and 10.6 assists, both NCAA bests. A native of Norman, Young dished 22 assists earlier this season and has managed to elevate an already-experienced roster which includes four upperclassmen among the top six players.
Khadeem Lattin and Jumani McNeace allow head coach Lon Kruger to trot out a backline of 6-9 and 6-10, respectively, while freshman forward Brady Manek – who has started every game this season – is another 6-9 post who has splashed onto the scene to shoot 53.6 percent, including a surprising 43.3 percent from three-point range while taking the second-most threes on the team behind Young. All three players have scored between seven and 12 points per game, giving Kruger solid balance.
But Oklahoma is a guard-driven group at this point, with Young and junior James Christian. The two lead the team at the 29.4 and 13 points, respectively, while Young is setting up teammates in advantageous positions which has allowed Manek’s hot hand as well as total 253 assists on 436 buckets – a decent number – against 166 turnovers, or an average of 19.5 assists per outing compared to 12.8 turnovers.
“I enjoy watching them, it just won’t be Saturday,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “I think (Young) has the most impact from the point guard position of anybody I have seen since Jason Kidd. We played him when I was at Cincinnati, but he didn’t shoot or score the ball they way Trae is scoring the ball. His ability to find open people and then their ability to make shots has made them terrific. Then you have the guy sitting over on the bench who really knows how to coach. They have all the ingredients.”
It’s triggered an incredible turnaround for Oklahoma, which went 11-20 last season, including 5-13 in Big 12 play and were bounced in the first round of the conference championship. Just a year before, OU reached the Final Four after losing to West Virginia in the Big 12 semis, and it appears the Sooners may be capable of challenging that type of run again.
“Lattin and McNeace are as good a pair of rim protectors as there are in college basketball,” said Huggins who is 4-9 versus Oklahoma while at WVU. “Khadeem has done it for four years. He has been around the league and seen pretty much everything. The other guys, James, (Kameron) McGusty, (Rashard) Odoms, have a lot of experience and they know what Lon wants to do. The neat thing is they have settled in to be the supporting cast and I think when you have that their team is so good. They know where people are going to be, they deliver the ball to where people are going to be and they make shots.”
That’s the big challenge for the Mountaineers. Not only must they deal with trying to turn over an ultra-solid point guard with experienced teammates, but the 1-3-1 zone could struggle as Oklahoma figures to shoot the ball better than the likes of Pitt or Kansas State. The game starts a stretch of three top 20 teams in four games for West Virginia; WVU will play five top 20 teams over their next seven games – another reason the 2-0 road start was huge.
“I don’t know what a ‘better’ team is in this league to be honest with you,” Huggins said. “It’s the hardest league I have ever been in, the hardest coaching league I have been in, and the best from top to bottom. The round robin makes it even harder. We don’t have a bottom. Somebody is going to end up there, but if you put them in another league they won’t be at the bottom.”
Note: Huggins, 64, said he would have a second hip surgery in three years following this season. This hip surgery will be on the opposite joint from the one he had repaired two years ago.
“I have to have the good one done at the end of the season,” Huggins said, speaking as to why he has continued to use a stool during games. “Those seats are so low – even at a lot of places the seats set off the floor – which makes it hard to get up and down. I know there are officials who wish I’d sit there so I couldn’t get up and down.
“It’s how we grew up. We didn’t grew up with AAU basketball and playing in a gym. We grew up on asphalt and cement courts. Everything is way better than those old Chuck Taylor’s that we used to wear.”