With two road victories now under its belt in the rugged Big 12 – one of them against a previously unbeaten team (13-0 at the time TCU) – and currently sporting its best record to start a season in 33 years (1982’s 27-4 squad that featured guards Greg Jones and Diego McCoy, forwards Lester Rowe and Russell Todd and center Tim Kearney as starters) West Virginia University’s men’s basketball team has served notice that there may just be a new “dark house” to win the men’s Big 12 regular season basketball crown. Is it outlandish to think that WVU could possibly take home that title? It is recognized that a very, very small Big 12 conference games sample size exists at the moment, but we can add conjecture and speculation to complete a currently very incomplete equation.
For starters let’s take a look at how the various Big 12 teams have gotten out of the gate, take that into consideration in looking at WVU’s remaining 16 conference games, and see where that road takes us.
Baylor. The Bears lost their conference opener to Oklahoma on the road in Norman, then dropped a heartbreaker to Kansas at home. Most college basketball pundits had Baylor as a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 team (although CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein on Twitter) had the Bears and WVU as two “off-the-radar Big 12 teams”). The Big 12’s leading rebounder, Rico Gathers – averaging over 2.5 boards a game better than anyone else in the conference – will continue to sweep the glass and Taurean Prince will keep Baylor in most games by dropping treys on the opposition. However, it is this writer’s hunch that Baylor will pull off an upset or two and drop a game or two it shouldn’t lose along the way, but generally finish somewhere around .500 in the final conference standings.
Iowa State. The Cyclones have plenty of offensive firepower (leading the Big 12 in scoring) with Georges Niang and Bryce Dejean-Jones among the Top 10 in the conference in individual scoring and Naz Long the conference leader in three-pointers made. Monte Morris is a dependable ball handler; he’s also a conference leader – in the assists-to-turnovers ratio category. As a team, ISU leads the conference in scoring offense but is dead last in scoring defense. It is relatively safe to project that last year’s conference tournament champion will challenge for this year’s regular season conference title. A key contest in the early portion of the conference schedule will take place Saturday night in Morgantown when the Mountaineers host the Cyclones. ISU faces Kansas and Oklahoma on the road and has the return match in Ames with WVU in a crucial early February four-game stretch.
Kansas. As anyone who has remotely followed the Big 12 over the last few years knows, Kansas is the king of the conference hill until someone proves they aren’t. The 2014-15 Jayhawks lack the star power of previous squads and may be as vulnerable to falling out of the top spot in the conference as they have been in recent memory, but until that actually happens they remain the team to beat. ‘Nuff said.
Kansas State. The Wildcats will likely bring up the rear in the Big 12 this season and are no threat for the conference regular season title. Bruce Weber’s seat could start to get hot following what almost assuredly will be a bottom feeder kind of year in Manhattan.
Oklahoma. Was the Sooners’ recent victory in Austin over Texas a wake-up call for the Longhorns or a “statement game” by Lon Krueger’s crew? OU is 2-0 out of the gate in the Big 12 and shares the top spot in the conference standings with WVU at this early juncture. Oklahoma might be a force to be reckoned with for the conference title in a year where there is no clear-cut favorite. Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard form a solid backcourt and Ryan Spangler is another premier Big 12 rebounder. Oklahoma is also the Big 12 leader in free throw percentage, which could be the deciding factor in close conference games where late foul shots can come up huge. Three of OU’s last five games are with Texas (home), Iowa State in Ames and Kansas (home) to close out the regular season. That three-game slate could decide the Sooner’s fate in terms of who captures the conference regular season title.
Oklahoma State. The Cowboys could be another conference regular season title “dark horse”. Phil Forte III and LeBryan Nash are 1-2 in the conference in scoring and Forte and Anthony Hickey are in the Top 3 in steals. OSU is not a good rebounding team but in almost every other statistical category they are in the middle of the pack, demonstrating a good overall package of skills. The Cowboys can also fill it up from behind the arc, which can erase deficits quickly. Like Baylor, OSU will likely pull off a few surprises and lay a few eggs along the way, but the lack of rebounding may keep the Cowboys from seriously challenging for the conference’s regular season crown.
TCU. The 13-0 start to the Horned Frogs’ season was viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism and many Big 12 observers wondered whether TCU could compete at the highest level once league play kicked in. The 0-2 start – bringing TCU’s Big 12 losing streak to 22 games – is giving every indication that the spotless non-conference record was smoke-and-mirrors built by feasting on mostly inferior non-conference competition. Given how TCU has limped into league play it is a true stretch to seriously consider them as a legitimate contender for the league’s regular season title.
Texas. If any team appeared poised to knock the bully (figuratively speaking) – Kansas – from the top of the Big 12 men’s basketball hill it was the Longhorns. With six players 6’-8” or taller, Rick Barnes’ collection of Sycamore trees, coupled with guards Javan Felix and Isaiah Taylor, appeared to present a formidable obstacle to overcome. The Longhorns played Kentucky respectably, losing by just 8 in Rupp Arena in early December. Then came an unexpected upset to Stanford at the Erwin Center before Christmas and then the even more shocking 21-point blowout loss at home to the Sooners. Texas will still likely finish in the Top 2-3 of the conference, and could well win the conference regular season title if they use the Sooner spanking as motivation to turn things up a notch or two, but the OU loss has suddenly made the Longhorns look beatable by the conference’s better teams.
Texas Tech. The Red Raiders will battle Kansas State and, it appears, TCU to stay out of the conference’s basement. Tubby Smith has some nice pieces but they’re simply too young at this juncture. Freshmen forwards Justin Gray and Zack Smith and freshmen centers Isaiah Munderson and Norense Odiase are promising for the future, but the future isn’t now in Lubbock. The Red Raiders should avoid the conference basement, but they won’t find their way to the penthouse, either.
In summary, Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas appear (again, with a very small sample size to date to go by) to be the serious contenders for the Big 12’s regular season title, with Baylor and Oklahoma State as potential additions to the top group.
That leaves West Virginia, one of just 12 teams currently with one or no losses in Division thus far in 2014-15. What WVU lacks in offensive firepower it makes up for in relentless, game-long, full court pressure defense that makes opponents teeth hurt (and other body parts, as well) and torrid offensive rebounding. If West Virginia doesn’t burn out itself as the season reaches the home stretch – the conditioning of this team is second to none and Strength and Conditioning Coach Andy Kettler isn’t getting nearly enough credit for how WVU has played during the first half of the season – the Mountaineers present enough of a headache to disrupt any semblance of an offensive game plan an opposing Big 12 coach might hope to execute. Often against the Mountaineers the goal is to simply get the ball across midcourt and try to set up a half-court game. West Virginia’s half-court defense is improving, but it still lacks cohesion and consistency and remains a weakness. Often, teams will break the WVU press and be rewarded with slam dunks when no one is available to help out the lone defender near the basket.
Teams that can handle the ball well and pass crisply, play disciplined basketball and can score from the outside will have the better chance of handing WVU a defeat. Among the likely conference crown contenders, that would tend to position teams like Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State better to break “Press Virginia’s” pressure, while a team like Texas with a decided height advantage but lacking in ball handling skills could struggle just getting the ball across the timeline. (The thought here is that UT will go to a three-guard offense against West Virginia, but we’ll see.) As stated earlier, Kansas is . . . well, still Kansas.
A crucial stretch for the Mountaineers begins this Saturday night against Iowa State, followed by a home tilt with the Sooners, concluding with a road trip to Austin. If West Virginia comes out of that stretch 2-1, or if it can manage a sweep of those three games, WVU could well be on its way to seriously challenging Kansas, Texas and the other upper echelon squads for the regular season Big 12 trophy. Another critical four-game stretch for the Mountaineers comes up in February, when WVU faces Iowa State in Ames, followed by the home game against Kansas, followed by a visit to Stillwater and ending with the rematch with Texas in Morgantown. WVU finishes with away games at Baylor and Kansas and hosts Oklahoma State to close out the regular season.
Keep an eye on WVU’s upcoming three-game stretch starting with Saturday night’s Iowa State encounter and the four-game line-up of ISU (away), KU (home), OSU (away) and UT (home) in February. WVU’s record in those 7 games could tell the story of whether the Mountaineers will seriously challenge for the conference regular season title.
One thing is certain – barring a rash of injuries or another bizarre series of events – West Virginia appears to be a virtual lock to return to the NCAA tournament and to give its fans plenty of positives to talk about this basketball season.