MORGANTOWN W.Va- The Mountaineers (12-5) are preparing for their second shot at the Kansas Jayhawks (12-6) this Saturday in Morgantown.
Kansas comes in 3.5 games back of undefeated Baylor atop the Big 12, and are just 2-4 on the road this season.
Despite beating the Mountaineers handedly in their first matchup in late December, the Jayhawks have fallen all the way to No. 23 in the AP Top 25 with key ranked losses to Oklahoma, Baylor and Tennessee.
Kansas is at risk of falling out of the rankings with a loss to the Mountaineers, which would be the first time since 2009 that they have failed to receive a national ranking by the Associated Press.
The Jayhawks currently hold the longest streak of consecutive AP Poll appearances.
Two of the last three games wins for the Jayhawks, they beat TCU and Kansas State (the No. 8 and No. 9 teams in the Big 12). Wedged between those wins was a ranked matchup against Tennessee in the Big 12/SEC Challenge in which they seemed overmatched by the Volunteers, losing by 19.
The Jayhawks are led by their leading scorer Ochai Agbaji (14.1 PPG), freshman Jalen Wilson (12.1 PPG), and Big 12 veteran and “glue guy” Marcus Garrett (9.7 PPG.)
Sophomore Christian Braun led the Jayhawks with 22 points against the Mountaineers during their first matchup in Lawrence. The streaky sophomore averages 9.8 PPG and will knock down open shots if the Mountaineers give them to him, like they have given opponents recently.
While the Mountaineers hung with the Jayhawks in Lawrence during their first matchup, this seemed only due to the hot shooting of Sean McNeil who hit five three-pointers in the first half to keep West Virginia level through halftime. The Jayhawks would go on to pull away in the second half.
During the December matchup, the Jayhawks were able to keep the production of Derek Culver in check, limiting the Youngstown, Ohio native to just eight points and eight rebounds. Now working with more spacing due to the transfer of Oscar Tshiebwe, the new identity of the Mountaineers will present a new challenge for Bill Self’s team.
“They’re playing smaller,” said Self. “They lost a talented big, and I think that their team actually got better. They’re putting more shooters on the court and playing faster offensively. They’re definitely pressuring more than they did when playing two bigs. They look more like the West Virginia that we’ve seen the last several years.
Last season, the Jayhawks came into Morgantown to sweep the season series. A perennial heavyweight matchup, Ochai Agbaji says that big matchups on bright stages are what they play for at Kansas, and believes they have a lot to show Jayhawks fans to prove that they are here to fight, and continue to carry on the Kansas name.
“It’s an important game all around,” said Agbaji. “The West Virginia game always means a lot, especially when we go (to Morgantown.) We always have to be focused going in there. We have to be really locked in this week. This is probably one of our biggest games of the season.”
This matchup will kick-off the proclaimed gauntlet month of February for the Mountaineers, in which they play six-straight games against ranked teams in the AP Top 25.
Following this matchup, the Mountaineers will play ranked games against Texas Tech (No. 13), Oklahoma (No. 9), back-to-back dates with Baylor (No. 2), and Texas (No. 6).
An extra 500 tickets were allotted for the matchup this Saturday in Morgantown.
The game will be televised on CBS, and will tip off at 2 p.m.
Cover photo via Danny Medley: USA Today Sports