The remarkable 87-84 come-from-behind victory by the West Virginia basketball team at Oklahoma State Monday night was key for so many reasons.
After trailing by as many as 19 points in the second half in Stillwater, 14th-ranked WVU fought back to taste victory over the Cowboys, improving its record to 9-3 overall and 2-2 in the Big 12 Conference in the process.
Besides helping in the W column, Monday’s triumph was also huge for the Mountaineers emotionally.
“This is a very, very big morale booster, honestly,” stated West Virginia junior forward Derek Culver. “We’ve been dealing with things, certain dismissals where people left (Oscar Tshiebwe) and other things like that, but I’ll go to war with the guys in that locker room, and I know they’d do the same thing for me. “
Besides improving West Virginia’s record and emotions, the win is also very significant from a historical perceptive.
We all know that past performances don’t guarantee future results, but for the Mountaineers, how they’ve done in these two-game early season road swings have been a telling barometer for their season as a whole.
Other than its first year in the Big 12 (2012-13), the conference has allowed outlying WVU to make an early season road trip before the spring semester starts that encompasses two games during one journey to the Midwest.
West Virginia played at Oklahoma on Saturday, losing to OU, 75-71. It then stayed in the Sooner State, making the relatively short hour and a half bus ride up to Stillwater for Monday’s back half of this year’s double dip.
How the Mountaineers do in their two-game/one-trip sequence has been huge in the previous seven seasons.
First of all, WVU had typically fared well in these two-fers, as it was 10-4 prior to this year. Four times it swept the two-game set, and it won at least 25 games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament in three of those seasons. A 2014 sweep was the only exception, as that West Virginia squad finished 17-16 and was relegated to the NIT. But in 2015 (25-10, NCAA’s Sweet 16), 2016 (26-9, NCAA’s first round) and 2018 (26-11, NCAA’s Sweet 16), those two early road wins helped propel the Mountaineers to big things.
Even a split in the early road double has been followed by pretty good overall success. In 2017 WVU won at Oklahoma State (92-75) but then lost in overtime at Texas Tech (78-77). Still that Mountaineer squad went 28-9 and made it to not only the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 but came within a whisker of advancing ever further, losing to No. 2 Gonzaga, 61-58, in San Jose.
West Virginia also had a split last year, losing at Kansas (60-53) but bouncing back with a 55-41 win at Oklahoma State. The global pandemic shuttered the 2020 NCAA Tournament, but certainly the No. 24 Mountaineers would have had a nice seed in that field.
Which brings us to the only prior time WVU itself got swept in its two-game road swing – 2019, falling at Texas (61-54) and then also at Kansas State (71-68). Those two losses were indicators of problems to come, as West Virginia finished that season with a 15-21 record. It was the most losses any Mountaineer men’s basketball team has ever suffered.
Now comes the 2021 two-fer trip in which WVU found a way to achieve a split. After trailing by 18 at Norman and 19 at Stillwater, any Mountaineer victory may have seemed improbable, but West Virginia did manage to go 1-1 on this year’s two-game trip.
History may not hold true each year, but it’s typically been a pretty good indicator … and if that indicator carries through this season, it’s a pretty good sign for the 2020-21 Mountaineers.
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Probably the biggest concern for West Virginia without departed big man Oscar Tshiebwe, who was averaging 7.8 rebounds per game this season after pulling down 9.3 per game last year, is if it can remain dominant on the boards moving forward without him.
Under Bob Huggins the Mountaineers have traditionally been one of the best rebounding teams in both the Big 12 and also the country.
In 31 games last year WVU had a +8.1 rebounding margin, which was the best mark in the league and the fifth best in all Division I. West Virginia also led the Big 12 in rebounding margin in 2016 and has finished in the top four in the league in that category every season but one (6th in 2017) since 2015.
Last season the 21-10 Mountaineers lost the rebounding battle in just five of their 31 games (Northern Iowa, Youngstown State, Ohio State, Missouri and at Texas Tech). Interestingly they won four of those (all but Texas Tech).
This season started off per usual, with West Virginia winning the rebounding stat in each of its first nine games, but then in its first outing without Tshiebwe, WVU got outrebounded at Oklahoma 41-36. The Mountaineers’ remaining big man, Culver, didn’t play well in Norman (2 points and 6 rebounds), so that was part of the problem.
But it was a different story in Stillwater. WVU won the overall recruiting battle 48-49, and the war for second-chance points from offensive rebounds 26-15.
Culver in particularly was dominating, as he finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds. It was the junior forward’s sixth double-double of the season and 18th of his career. It was also his second career game as a Mountaineer with at least 20 points and 19 rebounds, as he had 22 points and 21 rebounds at TCU in 2019. Maurice Robinson (20 points and 20 rebounds vs. CCNY in 1977) is the last WVU player before Culver to reach such territory. Warren Baker with 31 points and 22 rebounds against Pitt in 1974 was the last Mountaineer to go over 22 points and 19 rebounds.
“I feel like we came out and tried to be the tougher team,” noted Culver of the rebounding difference from Saturday to Monday. “Coach (Bob Huggins) was on us about getting outrebounded (at Oklahoma). With the players we have, that shouldn’t happen.
“Coach told to capitalize on our size and go attack the rack with reckless abandonment,” he added. “I feel like that translated into our improved rebounding.”
For much of the game, West Virginia’s rebounding and the play of Culver were WVU’s only real positives.
But in the final 10 minutes the Mountaineers found plenty of other plusses as well, and now history looks down upon West Virginia with favor.