By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
If West Virginia University’s players and coaches could have voted on the one team they didn’t want to meet in the first round of the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Tournament, it would have been the University of Texas, but as fate would have it the Mountaineers take the floor facing none other than the Longhorns of Austin.
Twice in the regular season, which ended for the Mountaineers on such a high note with an upset of No. 1 seed Kansas, to keep alive, however slightly, their NCAA Tournament hopes, these two teams have played, and twice Texas has demolished WVU.
Is West Virginia ready for the challenge?
“Definitely,” West Virginia’s All-Big 12 point guard Juwan Staten said. “Coach has been stressing to us how important these games are, and I think we’re just now starting to grasp how important they are, especially if we want to fulfill our goal.”
That goal, of course, is to reach the NCAA tournament despite a 17-14 regular season that included a 9-9 record in Big 12 play.
Staten’s next statement gave some idea of exactly how badly the Mountaineers want to fulfill their goal.
“We are going to come out and play like our life is on the line,” he said.
The two games against Texas (22-9; 11-7 Big 12) were simply disasterous.
“We’ve got a lot of incentive because we’ve played two of probably our worst games of the year playing Texas,” Staten sad. “That definitely has us thinking we’re due for a good game against them. We’ve played as badly as we could have played in the first two. We’re due for a good one.”
Texas won the first game, 80-69, shooting what was then a season high 52.7 percent and out-rebounding WVU by the ridiculous total of 49-30.
The second loss made that first one look like a good game for WVU. That game, in Austin, was lost 88-71 with the Longhorns shooting 57.9 percent and out-rebounding WVU, 41-26.
The 88 points and 57.9 shooting percentages were highs for opponents during the season, leading you believe that WVU coach Bob Huggins might have something new up his sleeve for this third game.
“We’re going to probably try to do some things schematically that are a little bit different from what we did the first couple games,” Huggins said.
When asked what they had done wrong in the first two meetings, Huggins didn’t leave much out.
“Our transition defense was not good. We turned the ball over excessively. We just didn’t guard. We were horrible. We gave up so many straight-line drives. As much as we told our bigs you can’t be pushed up the lane, they never got back under. We didn’t play very well.”
Whatever change that WVU makes is going to focus on freshman center Devin Williams, who is coming off his best game as a collegian against Kansas, something he must carry over against a Texas team that is big and strong inside.
It begins with Jonathan Holmes, a 6-foot-8 man-child who is the leading scorer at 13.2 points a game, and 6-9, 285-pound Cameron Ridley, who alone have been more than Williams, Kevin Noreen and Brandon Watkins have been able to handle.
But Texas also brings 6-10 Prince Ibeh and 6-8 Connor Lammert off the bench, so it doesn’t get any smaller when it substitutes.
Williams is going to have to hit the shots he hit in scoring 22 points against the Jayhawks to draw the bigs away from the basket, which cuts down on the rebounding and opens the lanes for Staten to drive, something he didn’t have in the first two games.
“That was as poor as Juwan shot the ball all year,” Huggins said. “He didn’t shoot it very well. He had a 15-footer he air-balled. He had the shots he always gets. He didn’t get to the rim, but he had as many open jump shots as normal.”
Staten’s performance, as well as Eron Harris’ performance, could improve if Williams has a big game.
“When Dev scores the ball that’s great for us. It gives us the inside presence most of the year we’ve been without. Most of our points come from outside. It adds another scorer and gives us a lot of points close to the rim,” Huggins said.
What’s more, the Mountaineers also need Terry Henderson, now back after missing four games with illness, to make an impact both offensively and on defense because Texas not only has an inside game but a pair of guards who are talented in Javan Felix and Demarcus Holland.
“They’ve got two guards who are very good at getting the ball in the paint,” Huggins said. “Those are two guys that are point guards; they play both of them together.”
So what are the keys to victory?
“It’s a lot like Saturday,” Huggins said. “We got outrebounded badly in Lawrence and we lose. We outrebound them here and we win. You have to get more possessions and get more easy baskets. We scored very few points in the paint against Texas both times. You look when we’ve been successful we’ve scored in the paint.
“The team that wins usually has the most easy baskets, and they’ve gotten a bunch of easy baskets against us in both games.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.