West Virginia and Oklahoma are no strangers to drama when it comes to basketball games between the Mountaineers and the Sooners.
Last season it was OU’s Christian James hitting what appeared to be a game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer but it was ruled on review that James’ foot was on the line as WVU escaped with a 72-71 win in the first round of the Big 12 tournament at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
Before that there was Buddy Hield’s half-court heave that came too late in the 2016 conference semifinals.
When the No. 13 Mountaineers visit the Sooners on Saturday (2 p.m. on ESPNU), there won’t be as much on the line as in those previous meetings, but West Virginia (18-4, 6-3 Big 12) will still be in serious need of a win. WVU has not won on the road since early January at last-place Oklahoma State and has struggled away from the friendly confines of the Coliseum in Morgantown.
All four of West Virginia’s losses have come on the road — against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden in New York, at Kansas, at Kansas State and at Texas Tech. WVU still has a shot, albeit a long shot, to hang around in the hunt for the Big 12 regular-season championship but not if the Mountaineers keep losing on the road.
“I think familiarity has a lot to do with it. I think guys just feel more comfortable at home, more confident at home,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “We lost in Lubbock, and a lot of people lose in Lubbock — they have established that as a really good home court. We lost in Allen Fieldhouse — there are a lot of reasons why you lose in Allen Fieldhouse.
“There is not a lot you can do. When you travel as far as we travel, I mean, it’s not like going to Pitt, you know, like we used to do. Or going to Georgetown. We’re traveling a good distance and then you travel a pretty decent distance on the bus after you land. I don’t know what else to do. I’m not smart enough to figure that out.”
Oklahoma (14-8, 4-5 Big 12) comes into Saturday’s game off a 69-61 loss to Texas Tech in a game the Sooners led at halftime. OU coach Lon Kruger’s team has three players among the Big 12’s top 11 scorers in Kristian Doolittle (14.1 points per game), Austin Reaves (14.6 points per game) and Brady Manek (16.1 points per game).
“Lon’s a pretty good coach,” Huggins said. “He does a great job of finding mismatches. It’s a lot of the NBA stuff. You figure out who can beat who. That’s what he did with Buddy Hield — that’s what he’s done with all of his really good players.”
Right now Manek, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, has been the go-to player for Kruger’s Sooners. In the loss to Texas Tech, Manek scored a team-high 19 points. Prior to that he had 30 in a win against Oklahoma State.
Manek, along with Reaves (6-5 junior guard) and Doolittle (6-7 senior forward), have taken turns leading OU at times this season, which is just how Kruger operates, according to Huggins.
“I think he does a great job of finding the hot hand,” Huggins said. “If you look at their games from early in the year, Reeves is the guy that they got [isolated], and then Doolittle was the guy they got [isolated]. Now it’s Manek, and Manek has had the hot hand.
“That’s what Lon does — he does a great job of finding the guy who has a hot hand going at that particular time, and he does a great job of [isolating] those guys or running sets that are going to get them the ball with the ability to go downhill with it.”
That means WVU sophomore forward Derek Culver could have his hands full. The 6-10 sophomore forward is among the Big 12’s best at rebounding this season, but will have another of the league’s premier rebounders in Doolittle to battle on the boards. Culver will also likely draw the assignment of guarding Manek, who has some range to his offensive game and will venture outside the post to look for points.
Culver has shown an ability to guard on the perimeter against, for the most part, smaller players. Against Manek he will be tasked with showing that same ability against a player much closer to his own size.
“I don’t think it should [be a problem for Culver],” Huggins said. “I can’t say it won’t, but I don’t think it should.”
McNEIL EXPECTED OUT AGAIN
WVU sophomore guard Sean McNeil missed Wednesday’s win against Iowa State with an illness, becoming the second Mountaineer to miss action due to the flu. Brandon Knapper, another sophomore guard, did not make the late-January trip to Texas Tech due to illness.
Following the game against ISU, Huggins said he is not used to having players miss games because of the flu.
“Generally guys play through it,” Huggins said. “They deal with it. They get an IV or do whatever. We’ve had a bunch of guys through the years here that have played through having the flu.”
Asked Friday during a media teleconference if McNeil is expected back in the lineup Saturday at Oklahoma, Huggins said it was not likely.
“No,” Huggins said. “I don’t think so.”