“What is a gauntlet?” basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla asked on Monday night as Oklahoma State put the 18th-ranked Texas Tech Red Raiders into seventh place in the conference with a 74-69 overtime win. “The entire Big 12 schedule.”
Those should be cautionary words for West Virginia, for if it overlooks TCU, it would be a fatal mistake.
While the Horned Frogs lost to Big 12 cellar-dweller Kansas State on Saturday, they have a pair of seasoned junior performers in forward Kevin Samuel (6-11, 255 lbs.) and R.J. Nembhard (6-5, 195 lbs.), who along with freshman standout Mike Miles (6-2, 195 lbs.) generate a combined 40 points and 17 rebounds per game. Samuel also averages two blocks per contest, and will be a tough challenge for WVU’s Derek Culver on the defensive end.
“They are a bit streaky, but their young guys can really get it going,” West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins observed. “They’re big penetrate-and-kick guys.”
Youth has been a contributing factor in TCU’s play this year, along with the integration of newcomers and schedule interruptions. The Frogs added two transfers to their roster this year, and five freshmen and redshirt freshmen got their first action this season. TCU has had 10 different starting lineups in their 20 games.
While trying to work through all that, TCU’s losses haven’t been to patsies. Seven of their nine defeats have come to foes inside the NET Top 40 and the AP Top 25. A five-game January losing streak, surrounding a pair of postponements, had them looking up at most of the league, but they have rebounded to go 2-2 so far in February, albeit with another three postponements sprinkled in. Add in pandemic-induced stretches of 16, seven and six days without a game at three different points in 2021, and building consistency has been one of the biggest challenges for head coach Jaime Dixon.
|West Virginia (15-6/8-4) vs. TCU (11-9/4-7)||Tue Feb 23 7:00 PM ET|
|Schollmaier Arena||Ft. Worth, TX||TV: ESPN2|
|NET: WVU-15 TCU-114||Series: WVU 14-3||Last Game: TCU 67-60|
|Twitter: @BlueGoldNews||Facebook: BlueGoldNews||Web: BlueGoldNews.com|
None of this is to suggest that TCU is a team that’s going to challenge for the Big 12 Championship. It would have to go on an epic run to even get a sniff of the NCAA bubble at this point. But in a one-game situation, the ability is there for the upset. The Frogs’ recent history attests to that, as they knocked off three Top 20 teams (WVU, Baylor and Texas Tech) last season.
It might seem, then, that WVU is in a good position to avoid any surprises, being as it is on a road trip that’s seemingly without distractions. That thought, advanced by one interviewer, was strongly disputed by Huggins.
“You don’t get it because you don’t have to do it. It’s rough,” Huggins said, discounting any possible benefits of the current road jaunt. “You put your head down on a pillow and you get up the next day and look around and wonder what hotel room you are in. We are just on the surface of what we need to get into for the TCU game. It’s harder than what any of you realize. If you were 6-8 and you played 33 minutes and then you went out and sat in a bus where you couldn’t stretch your legs out, then you get out and you have to go get something to eat and then watch some film – come on man.”
There’s no changing this, though, so WVU’s players have to fight through it. They have to get rest and unplug when they can (while still maintaining academics), but keep focus during the week away from home.
If nothing else, though, it could be good practice for the upcoming Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments, which could keep the Mountaineers (and other teams who make the latter) away from campus for two weeks and more, depending on how far they advance.
The 3-point shooting of Sean McNeil and Taz Sherman receives its fair share of well-deserved attention, but it has been Deuce McBride that has been lighting it up from beyond the arc in league play. In those 12 games, he’s 16-49 (53.1%) – nearly 10 percentage points better than his overall mark. Add in Jalen Bridges, who is 15-31 (48.4%) over the same span, and West Virginia might have the best quartet of deep shooters in the league at this point in the season. That also gives WVU some cushioning if one or two players are having an off night, or are out due to foul trouble, as McNeil was in the first half against Texas.
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With the status of postponed home games against Texas and Texas Tech in question, TCU will hold Senior Night prior to this game. Owen Aschieris, a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship for what could be his final semester, is TCU’s only senior.
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The scoring margin in WVU’s 12 conference games is just one of many indicators of how close the competition is in the league. The Mountaineers have outscored their foes by an average of just 3.3 points per game.
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TCU has seven players on its roster who have the same name as their fathers, but only four carry “Jr.” as a suffix. Those with patronymics include Kevin Easley Jr., PJ Fuller (Phillip), Eddie Lampkin Jr., Mike Miles, R.J. Nembhard (Ruben), Chuck O’Bannon Jr. (Charles) and Mickey Pearson Jr.
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Huggins commented on the overly-loud crowd noise that was pushed through the arena’s speakers during the Texas game. That’s not a first for the Longhorns, who have recycled band and crowd noise in football games during pre-pandemic games. There’s also the matter of their ribbon boards, which seem to flash brightly during some free throw attempts. Hopefully the environment will be better managed in Ft. Worth.