Challenge Now To Remain Highly-Ranked
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia has become the hunted.
Not just in the Big 12, where the No. 2 Mountaineers (15-1, 4-0) remain the lone undefeated team in conference play and sit atop the standings, but nationally as well. The name still doesn’t resonate as well as a Michigan State, Duke or even Villanova, all of whom have multiple national titles and have been to the Final Four in the last three seasons. But WVU has carved a niche for itself with a tough, dogged style that has helped them ascend to the highest ranking in school history in nearly 60 years.
It has, as head coach Bob Huggins noted, put a bullseye on the program, one that will be squarely aimed at by Texas Tech’s eighth-ranked Red Raiders on Saturday in yet another top 10 Big 12 clash.
“The first time we were No. 1 in the country at Cincinnati, one of my friends called and told me ‘Never forget: The dog with the bone is always in danger,'” Huggins said. “We have a bullseye on our back, but that’s what you work for. When we came in this league I don’t think anybody knew who we were. The way we played early, they didn’t need to. The thing is, its easier to get there than to stay there. It’s hard to stay there.”
And thus the challenge. It is, quite frankly, enormous this season. West Virginia has already played then-No. 7 Oklahoma, and now faces a stretch in which it will play four ranked teams in five games, all of whom are rated in the top 20 in the RPI. It doesn’t get much easier from there, the Mountaineers staring at a final 15 games, a dozen of which are versus teams rated in the RPI top 100.
There are no easy outs, no surefire wins on the remainder of the ledger. And that seems to suit this group just fine, seeing as how the view is of a gritty, grinding group which welcomes the stress and strain of such a taxing schedule.
“The coaching is too good in this league, the players are too good (for blowouts to occcur),” Huggins said. “We are going to have close games. It’s a hard league.”
Perhaps the most difficult portions of play are up next. West Virginia not only travels to Lubbock, where Texas Tech (14-2, 3-1) has already blown out Baylor and Kansas State, but then has a roughly 50 hour turnaround before playing host to No. 12 Kansas on Monday.
“They are really good and are extremely well-coached,” Huggins said of a Tech team that beat KU 85-73 in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. “They are experienced and have a great mix of the old and the new. (Keenan) Evans is terrific at the point. They play like seniors. That’s the most impressive thing. They made big shots at Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse and that’s not easy to do. They can shoot it, bounce it, are athletic.”
The Raiders also show excellent scoring and playing time balance. Outside of Evans’ 17 points per game, Texas Tech has five players between six and 10 points. Ten players show an average of at least 14-plus minutes per game, and no player sees more than 26.9. That means even Evans, a steady 6-foot-3 senior guard who is on the floor more than any other Red Raider, is still resting for 13 minutes an outing. Compare that with Jevon Carter’s 34.2 minutes per game, or the fact that two other WVU players – Dax Miles (29.5) and Lamont West (27.3) – see more minutes than Evans.
“They play 10 people and play 10 a bunch,” Huggins said. “I was looking at their stats again this morning and they really spread their minutes out. They don’t have anybody playing really heavy minutes like we do with our two guards. They stay fresh and stay active. They run really good halfcourt offense. They are good in transition. They mix things up defensively. They won’t give you the same look all the time.
“Chris (Beard, a former TTU assistant under Bob Knight) has done a terrific job with them. Good coaches win wherever they go and Chris has won everywhere. They are fortunate to have him.”
Note: Huggins also addressed the return of forward Esa Ahmad, now eligible after being suspended by the NCAA for half of the season, and whether the junior will move right back into a starting role.
“You’ll have to wait and see,” Huggins said.