Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers – Kansas Jayhawks
West Virginia has one more chance to make a move in the race for the Big 12 regular season conference title, and it starts with Saturday evening’s trip to Kansas for the return game against the Jayhawks.
UPDATING THE JAYHAWKS
Since rallying to deal West Virginia a crushing blow in the league title chase, Kansas has gone just 5-3. Like the Mountaineers, the Jayhawks have an ugly loss to Oklahoma State on the ledger, and they also dropped contests to Baylor and Oklahoma since the 71-66 win in Morgantown on Jan. 15. Still, they are just one game out of the league lead, and have this game plus a road trip to Big 12-leader Texas Tech in which to make up ground.
The Jayhawks have a feast and famine lineup — all five starters average in double figures, led by seniors Devonte Graham (6-2, 185 lbs.) and Svi Mykhailiuk (6-8, 205 lbs.). They combine for more than 33 points per game, and are also the two best free throw and 3-point shooters on the team. Malik Newman (So., 6-3, 190 lbs.) and Lagerald Vick (Jr., 6-5, 175 lbs.) also spread out behind the arc, making 37% of their threes.
The counterpoint to all of this exterior firepower remains Udika Azukuike (So., 7-0, 280 lbs.), who converts on 76.5% of his field goal attempts, most of which come at the rim. He does get some backup support from Mitch Lightfoot, who has contributed 42 blocks and the occasional bucket per game.
The reverse side is that Kansas gets very little support off the bench other than minutes. Silvio De Sousa (6-9, 245 lbs.), a heralded recruit, hasn’t seen his playing time or productivity increase as hoped, leaving the Jayhawks very thin behind their excellent starting five. That quintet has played almost 80% of the available minutes this year, making it fairly simple to get a read on KU. If the starters play well, it’s a win. But if a couple are held down, or if there are a high number of misfires from 3-point range, losses can result.
Defensively, might West Virginia recycle some instructions from its Oklahoma game plans to try to get its first ever win in Allen Fieldhouse?
|West Virginia (19-7 / 8-5) vs. Kansas (20-6 / 9-4)||Sat Feb 17 6:15 PM ET|
|Phog Allen Fieldhouse||Lawrence, KS||Series: KU 8-4|
|RPI: WVU – 30 KU – 4||TV: ESPN||Sirius/XM: 81 / 81|
Against the Sooners, WVU played the simplest of man-to-man assignments: Stay with your guy no matter what. That allowed Trae Young to score a good bit, but it also limited the rest of the OU lineup, preventing open looks from the perimeter. That’s a vital assignment against Kansas, and it can’t be stressed enough. If the Mountaineers allow Mykhailiuk, Vick and Newman unfettered looks from three, they are going to lose unless KU has a shooting meltdown of epic proportions. That did happen in the Baylor loss, where the Jayhawks went 6-31 from distance, but that is an anomaly. They have been under the 33% mark just one other time in Big 12 play this year (a home loss to Texas Tech) but outside that they range from good to sizzling. West Virginia, which has problems at times rotating to cover one or two shooters, simply can’t leave those players unguarded, even if it means trying to defend head up against Graham and not giving help on penetration.
It’s difficult to judge beforehand, but West Virginia’s mental state during this game will also be crucial. The Mountaineers know that the last two times they faced the Jayhawks in regular season play, they blew leads and wins that they should have had. Does that creep into the minds of some of the players if things take a bad turn? They most focus on the positive — that they have played well multiple times in Phog Allen Fieldhouse, and that there is no reason that can’t happen again.
WVU might not be able to take advantage of the opportunity to wear down an opponent that gets four-fifths of its minutes from the starting lineup — and that’s an item that stands in KU’s favor heading into the game. Bob Huggins has often referenced the cumulative effect of the full court press on foes, but can the Mountaineers play it aggressively in this game? Opponents have been able to get the ball into the open court and push it up quickly against West Virginia this year, and the spectre of Jayhawk snipers spotting up behind the line, or of wings heading to the rim for lob passes against a still-recovering press is a haunting one. Kansas has no problem in attacking in that manner, so if West Virginia can’t slow the ball, or keep it out of Graham’s hands, it will be very hard-pressed (pun intended) to get the road win. WVU will again attempt to deny the ball to Graham and force the offense to run through Vick or Newman, but that’s nothing that the senior hasn’t seen before. Kansas, like recent WVU foe TCU, passes the ball well, and has a high assist-to-turnover ratio. Azubuike is the only starter with more turnovers than assists, so West Virginia can’t simply rely on trying to keep the ball away from Graham.
In addition to Game Day, Kansas will retire the jersey of Cole Aldrich, welcome back the 2008 NCAA National Championship team, and wear blue throwback uniforms. What, no Red Panda?
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Jevon Carter’s next steal will give him 300 for his career, and move him into a tie for 36th place on the NCAA career list. If he maintains his average of three per game, he would move into the Top 20 all-time, based on an assumption of seven games left. West Virginia advancement in either the Big 12 or NCAA Tournaments could push him higher.
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Kansas currently has a -0.4 rebounding margin this year, but at least some of that deficit has to do with style of play and good shooting. Offensive rebounding chances are lessened in light of KU’s 48.9% shooting rate from the field, and the plethora of 3-pointers (41.7% of their total attempts) tends to remove players from the lane for rebounding chances as well.
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West Virginia isn’t trapping as aggressively all over the court as it has in past years, but it is still being whistled for nearly 21 fouls per game (320th nationally). Is some of this residue from the Mountaineers’ reputation for physical play? Kansas, conversely, is called for just 15.5 per game (18th). So, whatever the reason, get ready for another big disparity in free throw attempts.