Surprising TCU Up Next For Determined WVU Hoops Squad
There wasn’t a great deal expected from Jamie Dixon’s TCU team this year.
Picked last in the Big 12 preseason poll by a considerable margin, the Horned Frogs have defied that early pessimism, racking up a 12-3 record and a 3-0 start in league play. The question is, just how good have those wins been? TCU owns league victories over Iowa State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, which are currently the bottom three teams in the Big 12 standings. The Cyclones have the lone league win of the trio and stand at 1-2, while the Cowboys and Wildcats are 0-3.
TCU’s non-conference schdule was respectable, but with losses to Clemson, Xavier and USC, they haven’t recorded any attention-grabbing wins. Still, an undefeated conference start can’t be dismissed, and the Frogs will come into Morgantown on Tuesday night with the confidence and good feelings that accompany a four-game winning streak.
|WVU (13-2/1-1) vs. TCU (12-3/3-0)||Date:Tue Jan 17||Time: 9:00 PM ET|
|Venue: WVU Coliseum||Loc: Morgantown, WV||Series: WVU 13-2|
|NET: WVU-10 TCU-50||TV: ESPNU||Last: WVU 104-96 (2019)|
|Twitter: @BlueGoldNews||Facebook: BlueGoldNews||Web: BlueGoldNews.com|
Like WVU, and seemingly much of the Big 12, TCU is building its success on defense. It has held seven opponents thus far under 60 points — that’s the most of any team in Dixon’s tenure, and the season is still just short of halfway complete.
Offensively, senior Desmond Bane (6-6, 215 lbs.) is the go-to for just about everything. He leads in scoring (17.1 ppg), 3-pointers (42), steals (26), and is tied for the top spot in assists (53). He’s also second in rebounding with 7.0 per contest, behind Kevin Samuel (8.9).
“He’s one of the elite players in the league,” head coach Bob Huggins said of Bane.
Samuel (6-11, 250 lbs.) will provide plenty of opposition for West Virginia’s frontcourt, as he’s shooting 66% from the field while averaging 10.8 points per outing.
In the midrange and on the perimeter, the Frogs feature an array of players in the 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-6 range. Guard R.J. Nembhard (So., 6-5, 195 lbs.) is a volume scorer at 13.1 points per outing, but is shooting just 37.8% from the field. Jaire Grayer (Sr. 6-5, 210 lbs.) is more efficient, contributing 7.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per contest.
West Virginia will have to adjust to some of that length on the perimeter, and will also be facing two big men in Samuel and sophomore Jaedon LeDee (6-9, 235 lbs.) who can challenge them defensively. WVU had a distinct height advantage over Texas Tech on Saturday night, and sometimes it can take a bit to adjust to opposition that can look eye-to-eye defensively. Samuel has 44 blocked shots this year.
While a great deal of deserved attention has been paid to West Virginia’s big man rotation and to the newcomers on the team, the improved play of Brandon Knapper has also been an important factor in the Mountaineers’ start. After a freshman season lost to a knee injury and an uneven redshirt freshman campaign that featured too many mystifying turnovers, Knapper has become much more steady on the court. It’s been a long path for Knapper, who is still just a redshirt sophomore. His tale is one that runs counter to those who want to jettison a player who doesn’t light it up from the outset.
“I’m focused on each step,” Knapper said of what had to be a frustrating process after a standout high school and prep career. “The coaches believe in me, and I believe in myself. I’m just going out there and playing the game they brought me here for.”
That redshirt year allowed Knapper a chance to learn in different ways.
“I looked at the game differently. I studied the game more off the court,” he said. “You have to look at film, and learn those things the coaches are telling me about. Know where to go on offense, know what to do on defense. Things like that I feel like I am improving on every day. I’m learning the game a lot more playing under Coach Huggs.”
Knapper, playing at both guard positions, racked up 25 minutes against Texas Tech, his season high. He scored ten points and grabbed four rebounds, and while he did have a pair of turnovers, he balanced them with a pair of assists. His ability to play in both roles, often pairing with Deuce McBride, gives the Mountaineers even more flexibility.
“The guards talk about it all the time,” he said of backstopping one another on the court. “Deuce can play the two and the one, and I can play the one or the two. I like playing off the ball too, and I feel comfortable with the ball in my hand now.”
The backcourt bench strength, a key component in the makeup of many of Bob Huggins’ best teams, is definitely a factor to watch against TCU and as the Big 12 season unfolds.
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The last meeting between the two teams was an epic three-overtime battle in the WVU Coliseum, where the Mountaineers broke a five-game losing streak in a 104-96 win. That game was a milestone on the beginning of a turnaround for WVU, which split its final eight games of the 2018-19 season. That might not sound like much, but the level of effort shown by the team at the end of that trying campaign was certainly one of the building blocks of this season’s success.
TCU has played two overtime games this year, dropping a two-point decision to Clemson while edging Iowa State by the same margin. The Mountaineers have yet to play an overtime game this season.
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Bob Huggins is now just three wins from tying Adolph Rupp with 876 wins, which is the seventh on the all-time Division I list. Dean Smith is next on the target list at 879 (sixth all-time). Roy Williams, currently coaching at North Carolina, figured to be pulling away in the wins column, but the Tar Heels’ struggles this year have allowed Huggins to narrow the gap. Williams currently stands fifth with 880 victories.
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TCU lists a staggering 19 players on its roster. Six of those have not appeared in a game this season, with one sitting out as a transfer and five others apparently destined for redshirts as freshmen. The Frogs have 10 freshmen, one redshirt freshman and four sophomores on their roster.