October 21, 2014

(AP) - West Virginia has been the surprise of the Big 12 after losing its top two guards from a year ago and being picked to finish in the middle of the pack.

A deep bench, though, has the Mountaineers looking to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

The 14th-ranked Mountaineers catch a bit of a break in their grueling conference schedule when they visit struggling Oklahoma State on Saturday night.

West Virginia (21-7, 10-5) was in first place for one stretch this season, and with three games left is tied for second with Oklahoma - two behind Kansas.

Not bad for a team that saw Juwan Staten and Gary Browne graduate after 2014-15.

Jaysean Paige has emerged from the bench to put together a memorable season. No one has ever led West Virginia in scoring when they've played a majority of games as a reserve.

Paige could be the first.

The senior is the Mountaineers' leading scorer at 14.2 points per game. He's started only once, and that came when another player was injured.

But he doesn't get caught up in numbers and personal feats. Not when West Virginia is looking for its best regular-season finish in six years. And especially not under the watchful eye of coach Bob Huggins.

Huggins uses an 11-player rotation, eight of whom are averaging at least 18 minutes.

''Our strength is in our numbers,'' Paige said. ''The way we play, we need guys to come in and give us solid minutes and guys that come and give some guys breathers.

''It's just constant attacking. When everybody's healthy, it's a big boost for us.''

Having a deep bench allows Huggins to send in his reserves in waves and has helped West Virginia rank second nationally with 16.3 offensive rebounds per game. But it helps on the defensive end, too. ''Press Virginia'' is second in forced turnovers per game (18.1) and third in steals (9.9).

Behind Paige, starter Devin Williams is the next highest scorer at 13.3 points per game, although Williams is valued perhaps more for his 8.9 rebounds per contest. Four other Mountaineers are averaging at least nine points.

''They're all going to play,'' Huggins said. ''It's a matter of getting as many minutes as you deserve and capitalizing on those minutes. You want to play more? Play better.''

And Paige has. He scored a career-high 34 points in a 97-87 win over No. 17 Iowa State on Monday, a school record for a non-starter. In that game West Virginia's reserves amassed 69 points.

''Coach just told me to play my game, and other guys starting hitting shots,'' Paige said. ''They started to open the floor up a little bit, so it just gave me a lot more room to attack. I was just comfortable.''

Paige has increased his scoring average nearly nine points from a year ago and isn't the only player making improvements.

Tarik Phillip also came off the bench to score a career-high 22 against the Cyclones and has increased his scoring average by more than five points. Phillip made 6 of 8 3-pointers - matching the number he made all of last season.

''He has put in just an incredible amount of work,'' Huggins said.

Jonathan Holton, who lost his starting job following a four-game suspension, is averaging 10.0 points and 9.0 rebounds in four games off the bench since returning, while ex-bench player Nathan Adrian has averaged 7.9 points in nine straight starts.

West Virginia didn't need much from its bench in a 77-60 win over Oklahoma State (12-16, 3-12) on Jan. 9. Starters Holton, Williams and Jevon Carter combined for 43 points in the Mountaineers' third straight victory in the series.

The Cowboys enter this one after losing 71-49 at Oklahoma on Wednesday. Jeff Newberry scored 19 points and made a career-high five 3-pointers for Oklahoma State, which was outscored 44-25 in the second half of its sixth defeat in seven games.

''We just have to find some way to come out and get going in the second half,'' Newberry said. ''I don't know what I'm going to have to do. We just have to finish out strong this last stretch. We just have to figure it out.''

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