With only eight games remaining in the 2018-19 regular season slate, Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorns appear to be in a prime position to go dancing. According to ESPN’s latest Braceketology, the Longhorns are currently projected as a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and Texas can take yet another step to that end on Saturday evening in Morgantown.
The good news? The opposite end of the floor will be occupied by a West Virginia Mountaineers squad that’s been tremendously sub-par this season as head coach Bob Huggins has worked to overcome the offseason departures of key contributors, and then again working to find bodies to replace injured key contributors this season. The bad news? Texas is on the road for such a showdown, and the Longhorns are just 1-5 away from home this season, dropping five straight since cruising past Kansas State to open the Big 12 schedule.
While Texas has been mind-numbingly inconsistent, West Virginia has simply been losing.
After dropping four of the last five contests and owning a porous 2-8 effort in Big 12 play, the Mountaineers sit at 10-13 on the season; already shouldering more losses than any West Virginia squad since the 2013-14 season. Such is the byproduct of adjusting to life after Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles, and matters have only been made worse with budding star center Sagaba Konate spending the majority of the season sidelined with a knee injury. In Konate’s absence, James “Beetle” Bolden emerged as the team’s leading scorer (12.2 PPG), but he, too, is now serving as a spectator after missing the previous three games with a foot injury that forced him into a boot on onto crutches.
This isn’t to suggest that WVU is without talent because that certainly isn’t the case; the depth just isn’t nearly as overwhelming as what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing with Press Virginia.
Senior forward Esa Ahmad, and junior forwards Wesley Harris and Lamont West are each still around, collectively contributing 30 points and 14.3 boards per contest. Freshmen center Derek Culver, a former four-star prospect and top 100 recruit nationally, has been a pleasant surprise for the Mountaineers, leading WVU with 8.5 rebounds and leading all healthy players with an average of 12.1 points per contest. Texas learned this first-hand during its previous meeting with the Mountaineers, as Culver tallied 17 points and nine rebounds off the bench. These days, he’s starting, as has point guard Jordan McCabe, also a former four-star prospect who’s stepped into a more significant role with Bolden Sidelined.
Courtesy of the size Culver presents and the versatility that Ahmad, Harris, and West add from the forward spots, West Virginia should be able to hold its only against the Horns, at least as far as the frontcourt is concerned. Jaxson Hayes staying out of foul trouble will be essential. WVU’s guard depth is far from ideal, though, which could prove especially problematic is Texas’ guards Matt Coleman III, Kerwin Roach II, and Courtney Ramey, which collectively poured 49 points on Baylor, can find their footing in Morgantown.
Depending on the outcome of Saturday night’s showdown, West Virginia’s season may soon be all but over, as the Mountaineers will travel to Lawrence to see No. 13 Kansas next Saturday. Is there’s ever a time to play with a sense of desperation, it’s now. The same could be said for Texas, though. At 13-10 following two wins in three games, the Longhorns are inching towards their third NCAA Tournament berth of the Smart era, but those aspirations are far from a certainty at this juncture.
With meetings against Kansas State, No. 17 Iowa State, and a road trip to No. 18 Texas Tech still looming, the Longhorns quite simply need to capture the more winnable games remaining on their schedule, and today’s game against West Virginia may be the most winnable of them all.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. Central on ESPN2.