Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers – Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech, like West Virginia, has built its 2017-18 success on the defensive end. The Red Raiders might not harass opponents to the degree that the Mountaineers do, but they are very efficient in preventing opponents from putting the ball into the hoop.
SCOUTING THE RED RAIDERS
Wins over Boston College and Northwestern at the Naismith Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament propelled Tech into national consideration, and another pair of triumphs over Top 25 residents Nevada and Baylor solidified the notice. It was a win at Kansas, though, that really made observers sit up, as the Red Raiders won for the first time ever in Allen Field House. Tuesday night’s loss to Oklahoma may have dampened enthusiasm temporarily, but there’s no doubt that United Supermarkets Arena will be packed and buzzing when WVU arrives on Saturday.
They’ll support an uber-veteran lineup that shows four seniors and a junior in the starting lineup, and another senior and junior in key reserve roles. Keenan Evans (6-3, 190 lbs.) has been a bit overshadowed by the likes of Jevon Carter and Trae Young in terms of national attention, but he’s every bit their equal in many ways. He stuffs the stat sheet with 17.3 points per game and a 2-1 assist to turnover ratio while serving as the floor leader of a group that knows each other inside and out. Fellow senior backcourt mates Justin Gray (6-6, 210 lbs.) and Niem Stevenson (6-5, 205 lbs.) are matchup problems both offensively and defensively, and combine to average 13 points per contest.
It’s not all about the seniors and juniors, though. Freshman guards Zhaire Smith (6-5, 195 lbs.) and Jarrett Culver (6-5, 190 lbs.) come off the bench to provide even more productivity in the backcout. Both average 10 points per contest, and help form the defensive nucleus that has been just as good as West Virginia’s, holding opponents to a woeful 37.5% from the field and 29.5% from 3-point distance.
Just about everything the Red Raiders do, they do by committee. While Evans, Smith and Culver are the scoring leaders, head coach Chris Beard relies on a ten-player rotation that gets at least 14 minutes of run per contest. Only two players average more than four rebounds per game (led by junior forward Norense Odiase’s 5.5), but six grab between 3.1 and 3.9 per game. That has helped Tech build a +8.4 rebounding margin, and makes them quite difficult to keep off the glass. Everyone rebounds in Lubbock, and that will be a tough match-up for a WVU team that hasn’t been as strong on the boards as the coaching staff would like.
Many eyes will be on the return of Esa Ahmad for WVU and his effect on the lineup. While his scoring will matter, it will be defense and rebouding that could have an even bigger effect.
|WVU (15-1 / 4-0) vs. TT (14-2 / 3-1)||Sat Jan 13 2:00 PM ET|
|United Supermarkets Arena||Lubbock, TX||Series: WVU 10-2|
|RPI: WVU – 13 TT- 20||TV: ESPN||Sirius/XM: 81 / 81|
WVU has been adequate rebounding the ball this year, but hasn’t dominated the glass, especially on the defensive end, as it has in some previous seasons. The Mountaineers have yielded 162 offensive rebounds to date, and hold just a five-board advantage when comparing defensive retrievals. Another consistent rebounder is needed, and that’s a place where Ahmad, with his reach and jumping ability, can help. Head coach Bob Huggins praised this aspect of his game recently, and he’ll need to justify those words by preventing the extra chances that West Virginia has yielded on the offensive end. He can also help with West Virginia’s pressure, which, while still notable, has been a bit short of its productivity levels of the past couple of years, especially in the full court. Ahmad’s court coverage could be vital here, and can also come into play when deployed as either the point or a wing on the Mountaineers’ 1-3-1 defense.
There’s been a great deal of discussion over whether Ahmad starts vs. Texas Tech, but that’s not the important item. How many minutes can he play? How does he mesh, especially on offense, with a team that has progressed well together over the first half of the regular season? Certainly he needs to be on the court, but whether his first stint comes at the start of the game or at the first media timeout isn’t a huge issue.
Given Tech’s deep rotation, Ahmad’s return will help, but it also puts the onus on West Virginia’s bench to perform — or at least hold down the productivity of the Red Raider backups. Chase Harler and Beetle Bolden will have to hit a couple of shots and continue to display the improved defensive play they have shown so far. Harris and Ahmad, whichever comes off the bench, have to rebound. Perhaps most importantly, WVU needs more consistent play from Maciej Bender. He doesn’t need to score, but he has to defend better in the lane and at the rim, where he often gets caught in no-man’s land when confronted with drivers from the perimeter.
Red Raider backups have scored 582 bench points during their first 15 games for an average of 38.8 points per game. WVU, by comparison, has totaled 421.
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WVU forward Wesley Harris was termed to be “struggling” by one beat writer, but a little context is called for here. In his first year at WVU, he’s averaging 6.1 points and 4.9 rebounds in 21 minutes of action per game. Certainly, he’s not shooting as well as anyone would like (31.1%), but he is giving major effort on defense and on the glass, even when he isn’t getting the best of results. Compare that with Ahmad, who averaged 4.9 points and 2.7 rebounds in 18 minutes during his first season with the Mountaineers. Granted, Ahmad’s numbers came as a freshman while Harris’ as a sophomore, but remember that Harris did not play last year while attending junior college. Can Harris improve? Certainly. But it’s not like he’s a bust that should be banished to the bench upon Ahmad’s return.
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Both teams do a good job in limiting shots by the opposition, with WVU allowing 52.4 tries per contest and Texas Tech 53.2. Whether via rebounding or steals, the team that comes closest to its season mark is likely going to come out with the win.
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Head coach Bob Huggins has repeatedly proclaimed the Big 12 as the toughest league he’s coached in, and the national view, from both an opinion and a metrics standpoint, back him up. (That this doesn’t get trumpeted by ESPN and other “thought leaders” is obvious – we welcome your judgments as to why that’s the case.) However, some still don’t buy that view, bringing up the old Big East as a tougher row to hoe.
That misses, though, top to bottom strength. Those old Big East leagues had Rutgers and Seton Hall and Providence, among others, that were strong every once in a while, but not often. And they certainly didn’t threaten the Top 25 nearly as much as Big 12 teams overall. If you still aren’t convinced, here’s another measure. Bob Huggins has faced 91 ranked teams during the regular season in 11 years, the most in school history. That’s an average of 8.3 ranked foes per year, and that number will increase markedly by the end of the season. Gale Catlett faced 66 ranked teams during the regular season in 25 years (2.6 per year) , while John Beilein faced 34 ranked teams during regular season play in five years (6.8).
Breaking that down to just ranked league teams, Huggins faced 40 ranked Big East foes, but has squared off against 43 ranked Big 12 opponents. Given the number of teams in the Big East vs. the Big 12, is there any doubt that the Mountaineers are succeeding against their toughest competition ever?