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Huggins only worried about what lies immediately ahead

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The Mountaineer men’s basketball team has had a lot of success against Kansas in the decade West Virginia has been a member of the Big 12 Conference … at the WVU Coliseum, that is.

West Virginia holds an outstanding 6-3 record at the Coliseum against one of college basketball’s preeminent blue bloods.

WVU’s results against the Jayhawks away from Morgantown have been a different story, though, as West Virginia is 0-3 in neutral-site meetings with KU — all coming in the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City — and an excruciating 0-9 at Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence.

“We’ve had our chances,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, pondering past losses at Allen Fieldhouse. “We’ve played pretty well there at times, but things have had a way of happening.”

By the way, the Mountaineers’ game on Saturday (2 p.m. on CBS) is at the dreaded Allen Fieldhouse.

The Mountaineers have lost in The Phog both big and small. They’ve been defeated by more than 10 points on five occasions, including twice by 25+. But they’ve also been within eight points four other times. The most agonizing of those came on Feb. 13, 2017, when No. 9 West Virginia held a 64-50 lead with 2:58 remaining in regulation only to see the No. 3 Jayhawks go on a 21-7 run to take the contest into overtime, where the home team pulled out an 84-80 victory.

For Huggins, though, there isn’t any real magic in Allen Fieldhouse outside of the talent KU puts on the court and the noise it generates from the stands.

“What sets that building apart is 17,000 people, and it’s 17,000 people no matter who they play,” noted WVU’s veteran coach of the facility that opened in 1955. “It’s an older, unique building. You don’t get to play in many buildings like that, that are preserved like that.”

Of course, West Virginia is far from the only basketball team that has struggled in The Phog. KU has won nearly 75% of all its games in the facility, and it’s been especially dominant in the past 25 years, holding a 381-22 (94.5%) record in that span. Bill Self has been the Jayhawks’ coach for the last 17 of those seasons, and he’s an incredible 286-16 (94.7%) during that time at Allen Fieldhouse.

All that makes WVU’s task on Saturday daunting, but Huggins isn’t shying away from the difficult chore.

“We just need to go in and play. I don’t think the Fieldhouse itself has ever beaten us,” he noted.

This year’s Kansas squad is another in a long line of uber-talented Jayhawk teams. They’ve been ranked in the AP poll 90% of the time since Self took over as head coach in 2003.

“They’re really good. They have two of the best perimeter guys in the country; at least two, maybe more than two,” said Huggins, referring to KU seniors Ochai Agbaji and Remy Martin. “They’re good. They make shots, they penetrate, they’re pretty good.”

Agbaji has swapped places back and forth with West Virginia’s Taz Sherman at the top of the Big 12 scoring list this season. The 6-foot-5 Jayhawk is currently No. 1 in that category, averaging 20.6 points per game, while Sherman is a small step behind at 19.9 points per game.

“He’s probably using his athleticism a little more,” said Huggins of Agbaji, who has always been an excellent 3-point shooter — and still is, hitting 47 of 99 attempts from behind the arc this season for a Big 12-best 48.5% — but is now also driving to the basket more. “He’s a heck of an athlete. He’s using his versatility more. I think he shot more behind the line before than he is now. He’s attacking the rim now, and he’s a big-time shot maker.”

Martin, a 6-foot grad transfer from Arizona State, where was first-team all-Pac 12 the previous two seasons, is averaging 9.8 points for the Jayhawks, though he’s been slowed the past month by a knee injury. He did not play in KU’s last game, a 62-61 win over Iowa State on Tuesday in Lawrence.

Kansas also has a strong inside presence with 6-foot-10, 250-pound senior David McCormack. The Norfolk, Virginia, native averages 8.1 points and is eighth in the Big 12 in rebounding (5.9 per game) and third in blocked shots (1.13 per game).

“(McCormack) is a force. He’s probably the best rim protector in our league,” said Huggins of the Jayhawks’ big man. “His offense has also gotten better and better the longer he’s been there. He’s a really talented guy.”

Rim protection also has been a strength for West Virginia this season.

After finishing ninth in the 10-team Big 12 in blocked shots in each of the past two seasons (2.83 per game in 2020-21 and 3.58 in 2019-20), WVU currently leads the league in that category, averaging 5.53 blocks per game.

There are four Mountaineers among the top 11 shot blockers in the Big 12 at the moment — No. 6 Isaiah Cottrell (1.07 per game), No. 6 Dimon Carrigan (1.07), No. 9 Jalen Bridges (1.00) and No. 11 Pauly Paulicap (0.93).

A sophomore, Bridges is the only one of those four who previously had extensive game experience at WVU. An Achilles injury limited Cottrell to just 10 games last year as a true freshman. Carrigan and Paulicap are each grad transfers who are in their first seasons at West Virginia and were recruited this past summer primarily for their ability to block/alter shots.

“Certainly we are better there,” said Huggins of his team’s ability to protect the rim. “Derek (Culver) was a pretty good rim protector in his own right (averaging a team-best 0.83 blocks last year), but that was one guy. We have more guys now that can and do influence shots.

“That without question was what we thought was a need,” added Huggins of the offseason additions. “The first guy we went to get was D.C. (Dimon Carrigan) because after all, he was the leading shot blocker in the country (a total of 60 in 24 games last year at FIU).

“Pauly has also made big plays for us,” said Huggins. “Those two guys, in particular, are adept at changing things at the rim, and that’s what they hang their hat on, quite frankly. Neither one hang their hat on being a three-point shooter. (Protecting the rim) is what they do.”

Sitting with a 13-2 overall record and a 2-1 mark in the Big 12, West Virginia has done a good job to this point in the season, but a gauntlet lies ahead.

There are five Big 12 teams currently ranked in the AP’s top 25 — No. 1 Baylor (15-1/3-1), No. 9 Kansas (13-2/2-1), No. 16 Iowa State (13-3/1-3), No. 19 Texas Tech (13-3/3-1) and No. 21 Texas (13-3/3-1).

West Virginia plays six games against that ranked quintet in the next 24 days, including three in a row over the next week — at Kansas (Saturday at 2 p.m. on CBS), home against Baylor (Tuesday at 5 p.m. on ESPN2) and at Texas Tech (Jan. 22 at noon on ESPN2).

Huggins isn’t worried about any of those games other than the one on Saturday, though.

“Our focus is on Kansas. We’ll deal with whoever is next — I think it’s Baylor, but I’m not positive,” said West Virginia’s coach. “There’s that old coach’s adage about ‘one game at a time.’ I’m not big on adages, as you know, but I think you have to take care of your business at hand. When you start worrying about business down the road, you generally don’t do a very good job of what you’re doing at the time.”