West Virginia won 14 of its first 15 games and rose as high as No. 14 in the Associated Press Poll on the strength of a suffocating press defense. The Mountaineers flustered ball handlers before they crossed half-court, forced loads of turnovers and, more generally, prevented opposing offenses from dictating the terms of engagement.
West Virginia’s early performance stoked high expectations for the Big 12 season. Even though the Mountaineers didn’t appear primed to challenge Kansas or whatever other squad emerged for a conference title, it seemed they were at least set to finish ahead of the No. 6 spot media projected in a preseason poll.
More than a month later, at WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, Bob Huggins’ team entered a matchup with the No. 8 Jayhawks having dropped three of their past four games. All of those losses came by at least 18 points, most recently a 20-point margin at Iowa State last Saturday.
The rough patch drove West Virginia into a morass of seven Big 12 teams positioned between second and eighth in the league standings and separated by 2.5 games or less. On Monday night, West Virginia ascended a rung when it pulled off a thrilling upset over Kansas, 62-61.
The Mountaineers jumped out to an early lead but led by only three points at the break. The two teams never created more than six points of separation over the entire second half, but Kansas seemed to score a critical bucket with over two minutes remaining.
After West Virginia’s Jevon Carter made threes on consecutive possessions to give the Mountaineers their first lead since the seven-minute mark, Kansas coach Bill Self called a timeout. Kansas retook the lead when point guard Frank Mason used a Landen Lucas ball screen to drive for a layup.
Following a series of misses from both teams, including an off-target layup from Mason, the Mountaineers secured possession with over eight seconds remaining and called timeout. The stoppage preceded the wild sequence below, in which Juwan Staten hit the game-winning bucket and Kansas’s Perry Ellis missed a good look at the buzzer.
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Staten scored a game-high 20 points and dished out four assists, while Ellis finished with 19 points and five rebounds.
As Mountaineers fans celebrated on the court, ESPN reporter Holly Rowe asked Staten about when he got the ball in his hands on the final play. “Huggs told me, ‘Get it to the rim,’ so I got it to the rim,” said a clearly winded Staten, who had his arm draped around around Rowe.
Upending Self’s team would does not put the Mountaineers in exclusive company in the Big 12. Iowa State and Oklahoma State had already accomplished as much. Still, this easily qualifies as West Virginia’s best win of the season, and it should pay huge dividends on Selection Sunday.
Prior to Monday, the Mountaineers had won only one of their five games against teams ranked in the top 25 of the Ratings Percentage Index. Kansas ranks No. 1 in the country in RPI.
The question for West Virginia is whether this win signals a turning point. The series of blowout losses boded poorly for the Mountaineers’ chances of securing a favorable seed in the NCAA tournament. Upending the nation’s RPI leader qualifies as a massive triumph, but can West Virginia use this win as a springboard?
The Mountaineers’ schedule stiffens from here, with a game at Oklahoma State on Saturday followed by a home meeting with Texas (Feb. 24) and road dates with Baylor (Feb. 28) and Kansas (Mar. 3). West Virginia could lose three of those games. The good news is it secured a massive triumph before beginning that brutal stretch.
For Kansas, this marks another close, court-storm-inducing loss in a league filled with potential pratfalls. Entering Monday, six of the Big 12’s teams – not including Kansas – ranked between 10th and 29th in Kenpom’s adjusted efficiency ratings. Kansas has now fallen to three of those teams on the road.
Still, this shouldn’t shake confidence in the Jayhawks’ chances of extending their Big 12 title streak. Self’s team still holds a 1.5-game lead over Iowa State and 2-game lead over West Virginia and Oklahoma. Plus, Kansas’ remaining conference schedule is manageable, save for a March 7 trip to Norman, Okla.