Mountaineers Host Long, Lengthy ‘Horns On Saturday
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s challenges in the Big 12 are about to get bigger – literally.
The Mountaineers have already faced more than a molehill of tests, going on the road to beat Oklahoma State and Kansas State before getting past a top 10 Oklahoma team at home. Baylor’s back line of two 6-foot-9 forwards and seven-foot center Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. kept it close in a three-point win. And then WVU dropped consecutive games against a pair of top 10 foes in Texas Tech and Kansas.
Now, in the lone unranked opponent in a five-game stretch, West Virginia meets Texas at home on Saturday. The Longhorns (12-6, 3-3), fresh off a win over the No. 8 Red Raiders in Austin, enter with among the biggest front lines in the game. Forward Dylan Osetkowski is a lengthy 6-foot-9 junior who averages a team-best 14.9 points with 7.7 rebounds in just over 34 minutes per game, giving the three-guard look a solid power forward on the blocks.
Then there’s Mo Bamba. The 6-foot-11 freshman’s wingspan runs exactly eight feet, eating a chunk of the floor and taking a bite out of foes’ ability to attack the rim. The Harlem, N.Y. native ripped Texas Tech for 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks, causing Raiders head coach Chris Beard say Bamba was “special. I think he could block the moon and the sun. He’s got great timing.”
The forward averages 12 points and a Big 12-best 10 rebounds while shooting 52 percent from the floor. He lacks range away from the bucket – an aspect of his game that will be developed as he matures – and he’s converting just 59.6 percent of his free throws. Outside of that, there isn’t much downside to the teenager.
“Their starting line-up is probably the biggest in college basketball,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “They are hard to score against at the rim. I think they are really good. Shaka (Smart) has done a great job bringing them along and he has new parts he had to bring in there.”
Smart also got a key piece back when junior guard Kerwin Roach returned a game early off a wrist injury. The 6-foot-4 slasher averages 10 points per game and has dealt 45 assists – second on the team only to first-year point guard Matt Coleman’s 92 on a team that doesn’t pass it particularly well and has more turnovers than assists.
“Their guards have gotten better and better. It’s a matter of those guys getting experience and understanding what it’s like to play in this league,” said Huggins, who was also asked about the perceived match-up between Bamba and WVU’s Sags Konate. The pair rank 1-2 in the league in blocks per game, Bamba at 4.5 and Konate at 3.1. Bamba’s numbers are more than two blocks better than Oklahoma’s Khadeem Lattin, whose 2.2 ranks third.
“It’s two really different players,” Huggins said. “They both block shots, but they are different players. It’s us against them. I have never really got caught up in who plays who. You have that every game with Jevon, with Dax.”
Still, it’s a another sizable challenge for a West Virginia (15-3, 4-2), which frankly faces a near must-win situation simply because the game is at home, where the Mountaineers just dropped a decision to Kansas after leading by 15 points in the second half. No question Texas’ win over Texas Tech – its 22nd straight in Austin, where the Raiders haven’t won since 1996 when both programs were part of the Southwest Conference – served to tighten the Big 12 standings.
Five teams, including WVU and Texas, sit within one or two games of first-place Kansas at 5-1. And with the Jayhawks no longer omnipotent at Allen Fieldhouse (KU has lost twice there already and also 45 minutes away in Kansas City), the Big 12 seems as wide open as it ever has since Kansas started its current run of 13 straight regular season titles. To stay in the race, West Virginia must avoid a third consecutive defeat, especially with No. 24 TCU and No. 18 Kentucky on the horizon.
“We took (Tuesday) off. Yesterday was our first practice,” Huggins said. “We were fine. They were the best they have been in awhile. Every time you lose its not a very good feeling and you don’t want that to happen again. It’s more that than anything. This league is hard. We were fortunate to make some plays at Oklahoma State. That game was close. Baylor was real close here. It’s a hard league.”
Note: Huggins also addressed the end-game offensive issues, and if the return of Esa Ahmad has affected the play at either end.
“They did a really good job and we just got stagnant,” Huggins said of Kansas. “Too many guys trying to make plays on their own. I don’t think (Ahmad’s return) had anything to do with it because he has been practicing with us. He hasn’t been practicing with the so-called first team, but he has been practicing. We got stagnant. Too many guys tried to win the game by themselves.”