KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was an up-and-down regular season for the West Virginia University’s men’s basketball team that finished on a positive note with wins on the road at Iowa State and then at home against then-No. 4 Baylor.
Now the Mountaineers are tasked with attempting to carry some of that momentum into the postseason. That opens Thursday when WVU, the No. 6 seed, takes on third-seeded Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals at the Sprint Center (approximately 9 p.m. on ESPN2).
West Virginia’s rise and fall during the regular season have been well-documented — the Mountaineers rose as high as No. 12 in the Associated Press Top 25 in January before losing six of its last seven games in February, including two against the Sooners, and falling out of the polls. Now, with a spot in the conference semifinals on the line, the Mountaineers are hopeful Thursday goes more like the final two games of the regular season and less like the first two meetings with OU.
“When we play hard, we can beat anybody in the country, honestly,” WVU senior Jermaine Haley said Wednesday. “That’s something that’s within us. Coach [Bob Huggins] gives us the recipe every week to be successful, we’ve just got to go out and execute it. When we do and play hard, I think we’re unstoppable.”
Near the end of WVU’s poor stretch of play in February, Huggins vowed to be tougher on the team in practice. The veteran coach took the blame for the losses, but at the same time said he was willing to change his approach at practice to change the results in the games. So far, Huggins’ plan seems to be working.
“You saw the intensity pick up a lot during drills,” WVU sophomore forward Derek Culver said. “Coaches, they’re going to harp on the little things — things that maybe seem pointless or little to everyone else — but you know how we want to play with the high motor and discipline. Things like that are very vital to us, and I feel like if we keep doing a good job of listening to the coaches we’ll be OK.”
Oklahoma presents a unique challenge in the way the Sooners use their forwards. Kristian Doolittle and Brady Manek both can shoot the ball from long range and move well for big men. That specifically has caused West Virginia problems when the teams played this season.
On Feb. 8, Doolittle scored 27 points and grabbed 12 rebounds while Manek finished with 11 points and eight rebounds as OU won 69-59 in Norman. On Feb. 29 in Morgantown, Doolittle went for 19 points and seven rebounds while Manek had 15 points and seven rebounds in a 73-62 win against the Mountaineers.
“It’s really awkward guarding them because they have a four and a five who play like guards,” Haley said. “Really, just getting over the screens as guards and fighting over the screens — making sure our bigs are helping but getting back on their man and having help-side on the shooters as well.
“I think overall going into this game, it’s going to be an effort thing. That has kind of been our problem these last few weeks — giving max effort for 40 minutes a game. I think we’ve been doing a good job with scouting and getting prepared for the game.”
Culver said he deserves some of the blame for the way Doolittle and Manek have performed against West Virginia this season.
“I was probably one of the biggest ones to blame that day,” Culver said. “I kept losing my man and he was getting open 3s and stuff like that. Attention to detail is going to be really big for us when it comes to playing against them.”