The Kansas Jayhawks (17-5, 8-1) will attempt to protect their slim one game lead in the Big 12 Conference Saturday when they play host to the West Virginia Mountaineers (14-9, 6-4).
In somewhat of a surprise, the Mountaineers are in a tie for third place in the Big 12 with the Oklahoma Sooners. They forged this tie by beating the Sooners Wednesday night in overtime. West Virginia won their first 2 conferences games against TCU and Texas Tech, then dropped 4 or their next 5 ball games. They have bounced back to win three in a row against Baylor, Kansas State, and Oklahoma.
Kansas cannot afford to stumble at this point. They are but one game ahead of the Texas Longhorns, who have won 7 in a row, including a thumping of the Jayhawks last Saturday. If Kansas wants to maintain that little bit of breathing room, they have to take care of the Mountaineers this weekend at home.
The Jayhawks have four players who average in double figures in Andrew Wiggins with 15.9, Perry Ellis, 13.2, Joel Embiid, 10.9, and Wayne Selden, Jr. with 10.2. The scoring has been a little erratic of late, and Kansas’ depth of talent allows them to weather bad games from their top scorers. They don’t rely on just 2 or 3 players to get their points.
Embiid leads the team in rebounds with 7.6 a game, and blocked shots with 57 total. Naadir Tharpe hands out 5.2 assists per game, and Wiggins has 22 steals to top the team in that category.
The Mountaineers’ leader on the floor is Juwan Staten. The junior point guard does it all as he leads the team in scoring with 18.1 points a game, assists with 6.0 an outing, and steals, with 31 on the season. He also drains 51.4% of his field goal attempts, and pulls down 6 boards a game. Staten just maybe the single most valuable player to his team in the Big 12.
Kansas must defend Staten in an effort to disrupt West Virginia. The Jayhawks will probably throw a variety of defenders at him throughout the game. They might try the more physical Selden on him, the longer Wiggins, or the quicker Frank Mason. Don’t look for Tharpe to guard Staten much, as there is little chance the Kansas point guard can handle his West Virginia counterpart.
The Jayhawks looked much better on defense against Baylor on Tuesday than they did against Texas on Saturday. They will need continue to mature on that end of the court. They need to play with fire and intensity every game out, starting with this one.
Of course, Mountaineer head coach, Bob Huggins, is a familiar face. Huggins coached at Kansas State for one year. Huggins has a little a bit of an extra incentive. His contract pays him a $25,000 bonus if he beats Kansas in the regular season.
If the Mountaineers pull off the upset, the coach might be able to get a little something extra for that special someone in his life for Valentine’s Day.
Kansas has been doing a better job protecting the basketball recently (knock on wood), and they must continue to do so. Improved effort on defense may make this team unbeatable.
Kansas cannot overlook West Virgina, a much improved team of late. The Jayhawks are out of wiggle room in the conference race, so every game is big from here to the end of the season.