Winning on the road in the Big 12 is never an easy task. The same goes for beating a team twice in the regular season.
On Wednesday, that’s exactly what Bob Huggins and his No. 12 West Virginia University men’s basketball team will attempt to do.
The Mountaineers (16-3, 4-2 Big 12) hit the road to take on unranked Texas Tech (12-7, 3-3 Big 12) with a chance to take both regular-season games from last season’s national runner-up (8 p.m., streaming only on ESPN+).
The Red Raiders are coming off a 76-74 overtime home loss against No. 14 Kentucky and have seen their stock plummet in recent weeks as the team tumbled out of the Associated Press Top 25. That makes TTU dangerous, Huggins said.
“I think the mental part of it makes it difficult [to sweep a team in the regular season],” Huggins said. “We’re in the same situation we were in, basically, at Kansas State. We’re playing a desperate team — a desperate team with a sellout crowd and we’re a young group. We have been through that a lot, you know? I think that’s the hardest part.”
The high point of Texas Tech’s season so far came in a 70-57 win against then-No. 1 Louisville on Dec. 10, followed by a streak of wins leading into conference play. Since Big 12 games began, however, the Red Raiders have been up and down. TTU has scored conference wins against Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Kansas State, but lost against some of the league’s better teams — current No. 1 Baylor, WVU and TCU.
The Mountaineers defeated the Red Raiders 66-54 on Jan. 11 in Morgantown.
“They played a couple of teams that they were supposed to beat, and a couple of teams that are really hard to beat,” Huggins said. “That’s this league. That’s what happens in this league. It’s hard to go to Texas Tech and win. It’s hard to go to Morgantown and win. No matter what, no matter what our record is or whatever, it’s hard to come to Morgantown and win. It’s hard to go to Lubbock and win. It’s damn near impossible to go to Kansas and win. That’s the nature of our league.”
In the first meeting between West Virginia and Texas Tech this season, the Red Raiders were without standout 6-foot-6 freshman Terence Shannon, who missed the game with an injury. Shannon, who averages 11.5 points along with 4.5 rebounds per game, will be back in the lineup Wednesday.
“[Shannon] is a stretch four and they play him sometimes at the five,” Huggins said. “Our bigs, fortunately, our non-conference schedule helped us in that Derek [Culver] and Oscar [Tshiebwe] had to go out on the floor and guard. He’s a mismatch for most bigs because he bounces it so well.”
Perhaps the tallest task facing West Virginia on Wednesday will be a mental one. The Mountaineers only have three seniors on the roster this season, with Jermaine Haley arriving at WVU as a transfer prior to last season and Logan Routt not seeing much of the floor this season. That means WVU mostly relies on young players. Many of those young players are sophomores and were around for last year’s disappointing season, so dealing with success — a lofty ranking in the polls, predictions for a high seed in the NCAA tournament and getting everyone’s best shot every night — is a mostly new phenomenon for these Mountaineers.
“I just was sitting in here talking to Billy Hahn — we were talking and I said, ‘You know, early on at Cincinnati we lost to Indiana at home. We were up at halftime, they came back and beat us in the second half in a close game,’ ” Huggins said. “I went down to shake Coach [Bob] Knight’s hand, and he said, ‘This wasn’t fair to your kids.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘It wasn’t fair to your kids,’ and I said, ‘I don’t understand.’
“[Knight] said, ‘We’re used to this. We’re used to playing in front of sellout crowds. We’re used to being everybody’s big game. Your guys weren’t used to having a game this big. It’s not their fault. They’ll grow into it.’
“And I’m thinking, ‘What an asinine thing to say to a guy after he just got beat?’ But you know what? He’s 100 percent right, and as we got better, as we grew up — as a team, as a program — we took everybody’s best shot. No matter where we went, we were everybody’s circled game of the year and that’s where we’ve got to get to, and we’ve got to get to the fact that, hey, this is it and we have to rise to the occasion. That’s where we are right now.”
Sophomore Emmitt Matthews has been slumping in recent weeks for the Mountaineers, and during Saturday’s win at home against Missouri in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, he took a pretty hard tumble to the Coliseum floor.
Matthews, who averages not quite seven points and not quite four rebounds per game, stayed down for a moment following the fall, and after attempting a pair of foul shots went to the bench holding his lower back. He did not return to the game.
When asked for an update on Matthews’ injury status Tuesday, Huggins said the Tacoma, Washington native will be ready to play against Texas Tech.
“He’s fine,” Huggins said. “Whatever happened, he’s making shots [in practice] again, so I think the next time he starts missing shots I might tackle him, because he’s shooting really good again.”