Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers – Oklahoma Sooners
For the second consecutive game, WVU looks to break a tie with a team that is even with it in the Big 12 standings, and record a sweep that could prove critical for Big 12 Championship seeding.
UPDATING THE SOONERS
Oklahoma has lost four of its last six games — a stretch that has a least partially coincided with a difference in play of freshman star Trae Young (6-2, 180 lbs.). Over that span, Young has bounced between a high of 29 shots against Oklahoma State to a low of nine against Kansas. The fact that the Sooners lost that first game but won the second reinforces the notion that OU is better when he brings his playmaking and passing to equal levels with shot attempts, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t still option 1 and 1A in the Oklahoma attack. He scored 44 points on just 20 shot attempts against Baylor, and 26 on that nine against the Jayhawks. When he is that efficient, OU is almost impossible to beat.
Fellow guard Christian James (Jr. 6-4, 210 lbs.) has played off Young’s penetration to great effect, averaging 11.8 points per game while getting more shots away than any Sooner other than Young. OU might be better if Brady Manek got some of those chances, as he hits for better percentage both inside and outside the arc while contributing 11.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Khadeem Lattin continues to lead the team in rebounding with 6.5 per game, and also adds 8.0 points per contest.
With the Mountaineers and Sooners both tied in the Big 12 standings at 6-4, this game is an important one in terms of both immediate positioning and tiebreaker status. WVU, with its win in the first meeting, would sweep the season series with a win, positioning it to come out on top of any tiebreakers in seeding for the Big 12 Championship. The Mountaineers already own that advantage over K-State. Avoiding sweeps is a huge factor in conference play, as it gives at least a fighting change to win a tiebreaker, but having that advantage locked up is like an extra half-win in the pocket.
OU won’t be an easy out at home, though. Young has been white hot in his last three games in the Lloyd Noble Center, averaging 37.7 points, 8.3 assists and 6.3 rebounds. He is 58.9% from the field and 56.3% from beyond the arc over that span. The suspicion here, too, is that OU dearly wants payback for a game in which it played rather poorly at Morgantown in January. Although Oklahoma values wins over Oklahoma State and Texas more, this game is likely registering high on its radar.
Oklahoma is the highest-scoring, and one of the fastest-playing, teams in the nation. Averaging 89.9 points per game, and with possessions averaging less than 14 seconds, the Sooners run the court, get early opportunities, and attack before the defense is ready.
|West Virginia (17-6 / 6-4) vs. OU (16-6 / 6-4)||Mon Feb 5 9:00 PM ET|
|Lloyd Noble Center||Norman, OK||Series: OU 9-6|
|RPI: WVU – 35 OU- 14||TV: ESPN||Sirius/XM: 81 / 81|
None of that is a change from earlier this year. West Virginia was conscious of it in the first meeting a month ago, and did a good job in limiting those early chances with a good defensive effort. However, with a flu-ravaged team that showed obvious stamina shortcomings in Saturday afternoon’s game, just how much fuel is left in the tank? Head coach Bob Huggins questioned that issue in the post-game, but he has also noted in the past that players who fancy themselves as pro prospects (whether the NBA or otherwise) have to deal with just such fatigue issues.
This goes against WVU’s usual goal of speeding up the game and making it a frantic fight that forces errors. Will it be able to do the same, or might it revert to different tactics at times to slow the pace? Two such options are limiting trap attempts while playing more heads-up man to man (although help against Young’s driving ability will certainly be required), and more zone. That latter includes a morphed version of the point-drop that the Mountaineers have shown in previous seasons.
Against Kansas State, the initial look of the zone was the same, but rotations from the wings were different. The Wildcats, with a lack of post presence, didn’t attack it inside, and although OU has more skill, it isn’t a post-up back-to-the-basket type of team either. Will West Virginia be able to play that look against a Sooner team that takes 39% of its shot attempts from distance? Conventional wisdom might say no, but if WVU starts the defense with the forwards spread wider, it can cover to the wings and still perhaps help better against Young’s drives.
While it can’t be a focus while on the court, this is a game that could be a “make-up” for one of the losses against Kansas and Kentucky. It will be very difficult, though. Oklahoma, like WVU on Saturday, is on a bit of a skid, and is depending on the homecourt and a back-to-the-wall mentality to break out and get a leg up in the league standings. The Mountaineers have to circle the wagons, and will need good showings from several players, not just two or three, to withstand that effort.
Another item to watch in West Virginia’s substitution pattern is that of Logan Routt and Maciej Bender. Routt was first off the bench against Kansas State, and while both played together for a short stretch, it looks as if Routt might be the first option to give Sagaba Konate a break when needed. The flu and its effects could be in play here, but the impression is that Routt is making fewer mistakes in his time on the court. With Huggins putting out talking points regarding dependability and trust, Routt might be making his move on those foundation points.
With three more blocked shots, Sagaba Kontae will tie John Flowers (74) for second-most rejections in a season. That total would leave him just (?!?) 50 short of D’or Fischer’s single season mark of 124.
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Oklahoma enters the Big Monday matchup with a home winning streak of 14 games – the sixth longest active streak among teams from major conferences. The last team to beat Oklahoma in Norman? West Virginia almost a full year ago on Feb. 8, 2017.
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The Lloyd Noble Center on OU’s campus is named for Samuel Lloyd Noble, an oilman and philanthropist who supported many charitable causes in Oklahoma and across the country. He was a member of the Oklahoma Board of Regents and a strong proponent and supporter of athletics programs at OU.
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Despite rising from a sick bed just one day prior, Beetle Bolden played 18 minutes in the first half against Kansas State two days ago. That is the most time he has ever played in a half at WVU. Perhaps with an eye toward tonight’s game, he played just six minutes in the second half.