Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 7 P.M. CT | TV: Longhorn Network
Vegas: Texas -6 | KenPom: Texas, 81-74 (73%)
Join me in my time machine, as we go all the way back to January 8th. The Longhorns were heading to Stillwater to take on Oklahoma State in their second Big 12 game, having just let a prime opportunity slip away at home against Oklahoma in the conference opener.
“Texas was already going to have a hard time reaching .500 in conference play, and in turn getting to the magical 20-win plateau, especially in such a deep league,” a wise UT basketball blogger wrote. “Losing a home game against another mid-tier team makes those goals even tougher for Texas to achieve, and it means that an extra win is going to have to be picked off on the road at some point.”
Here we are, just five-and-a-half weeks later, with seven games still left on the schedule. Texas is now just one victory away from the 20-win plateau and .500 in league play. In this week’s mock bracket exercise in Indianapolis, the Longhorns were one of the early locks in the field, and are currently a 5-seed in The Bracket Project’s bracket matrix.
There are hits and there are misses, and then there are misses. Yours truly, along with essentially every other expert out there, was way off on this team. The Longhorns are still just one game behind Kansas in the Big 12 race, although next Saturday’s matchup with the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse tilts the title odds strongly in KU’s favor.
While the Longhorns have been quite the surprise this season, so have the West Virginia Mountaineers. Predicted to finish seventh by league coaches in October, WVU is now tied for fourth and is just 1.5 games behind the second-place Longhorns. For a team that scuttled through non-conference play and looked rather underwhelming in the first few weeks of Big 12 play, the turnaround has been remarkable.
That turnaround was punctuated on Monday night, as West Virginia destroyed Iowa State at home, winning by a lopsided 102-77 count. The quality victory actually put the Mountaineers on Joe Lunardi’s Thursday bracket, squeaking into the “Last Four In” category. To say that West Virginia would greatly benefit from a road upset in Austin tonight would be drastically understating the situation. For a team that is now squarely on the bubble, a win tonight would carry quite a bit of weight on Selection Sunday.
Meet the Mountaineers
For an in-depth look at the West Virginia roster and a look at the team’s four factors, check out LRT’s preview of the game in Morgantown between these two teams.
The First Meeting
The Longhorns dominated the glass and forced the Mountaineers into taking — and missing — a bunch of challenged threes when the teams met at West Virginia last month. Texas used a 27-11 run over the final 12 minutes of the first half to open up a big lead, and the team never looked back. Although the Mountaineers clawed to within 11 points by the final buzzer, the game was never in doubt in the second half, and Texas cruised to an 80-69 win.
Cameron Ridley was dominant inside for Texas, posting 12 points and 12 boards for what was then his fourth double-double of the season. The Longhorns reclaimed more than 34% of their offensive rebounding opportunities, while limiting WVU to contested one-shot possessions. Texas locked down the defensive glass, allowing the Mountaineers to win back just 22% of their own misses.
Texas did a good job limiting open looks on the perimeter, something that opponents often find difficult to do against the spread attack and driving ability of West Virginia. The Mountaineers made just 16% of their three-point attempts on the night, shooting 4-for-25 from long range. Point guard Juwan Staten went off for 23 points and added five assists, while freshman forward Brandon Watkins had a nice performance off the bench, logging five blocks and snagging six boards in just 14 minutes of action.
Staten had entered the game with Texas as the team’s second-leading scorer, but his offensive explosion against the Horns was just the beginning. The former Dayton Flyer has averaged 20.6 points per game over the team’s last nine outings, a stretch that started with the first Texas game. Even more impressive is the fact that he’s lighting up the scoreboard while also filling up the rest of the stat sheet. During the same nine-game stretch, Staten has also averaged 5.8 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game, making him a leading candidate for post-season All-Big 12 honors.
The Mountaineers have also caught fire from behind the arc in recent weeks. Although they followed up the Texas game with another disappointing 26.7% three-point mark in a blowout loss at Kansas State, the ‘Eers have been lights out since. In the team’s last seven games, its three-point percentage is a scorching 40.1%, and triples have accounted for 33.1% of the team’s scoring. For comparison’s sake, Division I teams average just 26.6% of their scoring from long range.
West Virginia has won four of its last five games, including home victories against Kansas State, OU, and Iowa State. An ability to force mistakes has been a big part of the team’s success, with its defense causing turnovers on 19.3% of opponents’ possessions in Big 12 contests. While the Mountaineers are stealing possessions from their opponents, they are also protecting their own, turning it over on just 14.2% of their Big 12 possessions. The team’s turnover rates on both ends of the court are tops in the Big 12 heading into today’s action.
Keys to the Game
1) Lock down the perimeter – There’s no way to shut down Staten and his driving ability for an entire game, but staying home against perimeter shooters will certainly limit the damage he can do on the drive-and-kick. Texas has to stick with Eron Harris, Terry Henderson, and the floor-stretching Rémi Dibo when they are waiting behind the arc, or else dribble penetration by the other WVU guards will lead to wide-open looks from long range.
2) Avoid foul trouble – The Longhorns have a strong interior defense that can frustrate Staten when he gets to the rim, if they play vertically and avoid fouls. With Jonathan Holmes working his way back from a knee injury, Texas can’t afford to let the slashing ability of the West Virginia guards cause foul trouble in the frontcourt. The Longhorns have a distinct advantage inside in this game, but picking up silly fouls would erase that edge quickly.
3) Clean the glass – The Longhorns dominated the glass in the first meeting between these teams, and they should be able to do the same again tonight. West Virginia’s defense has improved greatly over the last few weeks, so earning second and third chances will be key to keeping the offense going. On the other end of the court, if Texas can stop penetration and force the Mountaineers into contested jumpers, the team has to take advantage by closing out the possessions with solid board work.
4) Hang on to the ball – Texas turned it over 18 times against West Virginia in the first meeting, which equated to more than 24% of the team’s possessions wasted. In last week’s blowout loss to Kansas State, the Longhorns again struggled with the same demons, turning it over on more than 28% of their possessions. West Virginia’s defense is the best in the Big 12 when it comes to forcing mistakes, so the Longhorns have to avoid falling into that same trap tonight. If they don’t, the Horns could become the second-straight Top 25 opponent to fall victim to the Mountaineers.