After all that No. 6 West Virginia has been through this season, it’s hard to imagine there could be much more on the line than what the team will face when it takes the floor for its home and regular-season finale on Saturday.
At stake are milestones, momentum and Big 12 tournament seeding. Standing in the way is a red-hot Oklahoma State team featuring one of the nation’s premier players, freshman Cade Cunningham.
It all starts at 2 p.m. in the Coliseum, with the game airing on ESPN2.
From a team perspective, the Mountaineers (18-7 overall, 11-5 Big 12) can lock up the conference’s No. 2 seed in next week’s Big 12 tournament with a win over the Cowboys. A loss would move Kansas to the No. 2 seed and, combined with a Texas win over TCU on Sunday, would drop WVU all the way down to the No. 4 seed.
(WVU and Texas would finish with identical 11-6 league records, and they split the regular-season series. Both were winless against Baylor, but Texas swept the Jayhawks while the Mountaineers split with Kansas, thus giving Texas the tiebreaker in that scenario.)
While all of that seems complicated, the Mountaineers can make it extremely simple by taking care of the No. 17 Cowboys (17-7, 10-7), who had a five-game win streak halted on Thursday night at No. 3 Baylor.
But just to be in this position after a COVID-19 halt, the exit of preseason All-Big 12 first-team center Oscar Tshiebwe and a rugged road schedule is an accomplishment in and of itself. The opportunity at hand is not lost on the Mountaineers.
“We went through our roster transformation, basically I’ll call it that, everyone kind of counted us out and we took it as, ‘Let’s show everybody that we can be better than what people are saying we’re going to be.’ We’re still that West Virginia team that everybody was talking about having Final Four potential, no matter who’s here or who’s where,” freshman forward Jalen Bridges said on Thursday. “We just took that to heart and we come out every game and just try to win by any means necessary.”
“[It shows] that we’re tough,” junior forward Derek Culver added. “I don’t want to give the speech that every team gives, but you guys seen it. We lost big pieces and we kept moving as if we didn’t lose any pieces. It’s just hats off to my teammates and my coaches, they’re just really good at working and figuring things out on the fly.”
For Culver, Saturday has a chance to be extra special. The 6-foot-10, 255-pounder is at 992 points for his career, just eight short of 1,000, a milestone that would obviously be well in play on Saturday.
“That’d be really big,” Culver said. “I didn’t even know I was that close to it. I really wasn’t paying attention, but that’s something I’m most definitely going to be looking forward to.”
It could be a really big day for WVU coach Bob Huggins as well. After Thursday’s win, Huggins is now at 899 victories for his coaching career, and he will become just the sixth Division I coach to reach 900 wins.
He has one more chance to do it at home in front of WVU fans before tournament play begins.
“He has 900 wins, you can’t really just brush that off like that’s just something that’s small,” Culver said. “Nine-hundred of anything is a lot, especially when you’re talking about basketball games. I think it will be pretty special that I get to be there with coach and get to experience his 900th win.”
And yet with all of that riding on it, nothing about Saturday’s game promises to be easy.
Cunningham, projected by many outlets to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft, is leading the Big 12 Conference in scoring at 19.7 points per game to go with an average of 6.3 rebounds.
The Cowboys are far from a one-trick pony, with five other players averaging over 8.5 points or better — Avery Anderson 10.6, Kalib Boone 9.8, Isaac Likekele 9.8, Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe 9.0, Rondel Walker 8.6.
The Mountaineers earned an 87-84 win in Stillwater, Oklahoma back on Jan. 4, rallying from 19 points down in the second half to pick up a crucial victory. Since then, Cunningham has continued to get better, and the rest of the Cowboys have settled into their roles with Oklahoma State ripping off a win over Texas and two over Oklahoma prior to Thursday’s 81-70 setback at Baylor.
While waiting to give his postgame interview, Huggins caught a small piece of that game and saw some of Cunningham’s exploits, acknowledging that his versatility within the Cowboys’ offensive schemes will make Saturday a challenge.
“I was just standing in the hallway waiting for you guys to finish up and they inverted him — they’ve been playing him on the perimeter — they inverted him and put him on the post and he drop-stepped and dunked it over top of a 6-foot-10 guy,” Huggins said. “I don’t know what to expect. They can play him there, they can play him on the wing, he’s played point guard — he’s a talented, talented guy.”
On Friday, Huggins was officially named a semifinalist for the Werner Ladder Naismith Men’s Coach of the Year award as presented by the Atlanta Tipoff Club. Huggins is one of 10 nominees and one of two in the Big 12, joining Baylor’s Scott Drew.