It’s no secret in the Big 12: Virtually every single game is comparable to warfare, and at some point in each conference member’s schedule, a stretch will arise that would be better served as an NCAA retribution than a typical two-game week.
That portion of the schedule is now set to get underway for the Texas Longhorns, who are staring down the barrel of two hostile road tests against the No. 6 West Virginia Moutnaineers and the No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks.
This daunting stretch begins Wednesday night in Morgantown at 6 p.m. CT on ESPNU, and while the odds certainly don’t appear to be in Texas’ favor, adding yet another impressive resume-building victory would prove crucial down the stretch; but this time, it would have to come on the road.
Previewing Press Virginia
Have you ever watched a basketball game from the comfort of your home and still felt rattled by the defensive intensity coming right through your TV screen? Welcome to Press Virginia. Once again, Bob Huggins’ relentlessly aggressive press defense is making life a complete living hell for all who face it, and as you can expect, the results have been quite favorable for the Mountaineers – West Virginia knocked off top-ranked Kansas and nearly upset then-No. 2 Oklahoma in Norman last week en route to a top-10 ranking.
Through the first half of the season, WVU’s press has caused as much havoc as Huggins could hope for. Nearly across the board, the Mountaineers headline the NCAA in any category remotely related to the results of a productive press, as they’re No. 1 in steals (194) and steals per game (11.4), and No. 1 in turnovers forced (352) and turnovers forced per game (20.7), as well.
As you could expect, with West Virginia forcing turnovers at such a high clip, they often find themselves out in transition, which has accounted for 25.4 percent of the team’s shot attempts, which are falling at 61.7 percent effective field goal clip, per hoop-math. That’s considerably productive, and plays a crucial role in WVU’s 84.4 points per game ranking within the top 15 nationally. It’s also a little easier to find point when you’re snagging offensive rebounds at the NCAA’s 2nd highest rate of 16.8 per game, largely due to Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton swarming the paint.
But West Virginia’s success isn’t merely a product of an effective Bob Huggins’ press. The Mountaineers have some serious ball players in Morgantown, headlined by the aforementioned Williams’ 14.1 points and 8.6 boards per game. With Cameron Ridley sidelined and Prince Ibeh a foul-prone replacement, Williams’ low-post arsenal could send Ibeh to the bench early and allow Williams and Holton to have a field day around the rim.
In the backcourt, Jaysean Paige headlines a trio of dangerous scorers and ball handlers, which also includes Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. Collectively, the three combine for 37 points and 9.2 boards a night, but Paige looks to be emerging into one of college basketball’s premier scoring guards as a senior, averaging 19.6 points through Big 12 play. Tarik Phillip, Elijah Macon, Esa Ahmad, and Nathan Adrian help round out a solid nine-man rotation that doesn’t seem to miss a beat with substitutions, which is vital considering WVU’s 412 fouls through 17 games is the 14th most in the nation.
Keys to Texas’ success
For the Longhorns to pull off the upset over the 6th-ranked Mountaineers on the road tonight, a lot is going to have to fall into place for Texas. Isaiah Taylor is far and away the best option Texas has in hopes of limiting the turnovers against West Virginia’s press, but mistakes could pile up in a hurry depending on how the freshmen – Kerwin Roach Jr., Eric Davis Jr., and Tevin Mack – handle the controlled chaos.
When you add in Javan Felix, there’s little question that Texas has the talent capable to hang with WVU, but the Mountaineers like to speed the pace up and run, so Texas will need to slow the tempo down and hit more than a few looks from deep to balance the interior mismatch Williams and Holton pose.
A huge key will be how effective Ibeh is in defending Williams, and whether or not he can stay out of foul trouble. While Ibeh has proven his value as a rim protector this season, with 4.4 rejections per 40, he can’t block shots from the bench, where he’s spent an average of 18 minutes each game in Ridley’s absence; thanks to 21 total fouls.
Aside from limiting turnovers, which Texas has done notably this season with only 10.9 per game, and keeping Ibeh effective defensively and out of foul trouble, the supporting cast simply has to give Taylor some scoring help. Davis, Mack, and Felix can all light it up from deep and create their own shots on occasion, but it’s been rare for each of them to do so in a single game this season.
In Texas’ upset over No. 17 Iowa State, that trio combined for 41 points – a total Felix and Davis equaled themselves in Texas upset over No. 3 North Carolina. Taylor is almost assuredly going to get his, but for the Longhorns to have a chance down the stretch and ultimately steal another resume-building win, a similar effort must come from the supporting cast.
Prediction: West Virginia 82, Texas 73