The West Virginia University men’s basketball team opens the Big 12 Conference portion of its schedule this weekend as the No. 16 team in the most recent Associated Press Top 25 poll, and does so on the road at longtime league powerhouse Kansas — the AP’s current No. 3 team.
In the past, this game would be a near lock for a prime spot on major cable or even a broadcast network. The Big 12 wants to look to the future, however, and part of that is a deal with ESPN for the league’s “Big 12 Now” streaming service. A handful of games were selected to be exclusive to the streaming platform when the conference announced its schedule, and Saturday’s 4 p.m. clash between the Mountaineers (11-1) and Jayhawks (10-2) can only be seen with a ticket to get in the door at KU’s Allen Fieldhouse or a subscription and login credentials to get past ESPN’s paywall for ESPN+ and Big 12 Now content.
The state of West Virginia is among the worst in the country when it comes to broadband connectivity speeds and overall coverage. When the state’s biggest sports draw gets pushed to a streaming-only platform, the result is a portion of in-state Mountaineer fans will have a difficult time, at best, attempting to watch Saturday’s game at Kansas.
“I think it’s tough for our people,” veteran WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “I know I’ve got two girls that are pretty good with being able to work the iPads and all those kind of things — and they were having a hard time getting our first football game [on Big 12 Now]. I’m sure it has gotten better since then, but it’s going to take some time. I think we may be the school that our fans have the hardest time [with the streaming service] to be able to have the technology or whatever it is to watch the game.”
LOST IN THE PHOG
There have been some close calls through the years, but the Mountaineers still have not won at KU’s Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
Since joining the Big 12, West Virginia is 0-7 in Lawrence. There have been blowouts — like last season’s 78-53 loss — and there have been heartbreakers — like the overtime losses in 2017 and 2015.
The famous venue has been the sight of wild games and questionable calls — often against the visitors — for WVU, and no matter how much momentum his team has, Huggins said that is a hard thing to block out when preparing to visit the Jayhawks.
“It’s hard not to think about the things that have happened at Allen Fieldhouse over the years,” Huggins said. “Not just us, but other people. I think that’s always in the back of your mind.”
KU is playing at its usual high level again this season, with another batch of top-level recruits blending with established college stars under coach Bill Self’s watch. Forward Udoka Azubuike is back after missing both meetings with the Mountaineers last season and leads the nation with a .786 shooting percentage. Point guard Devon Dotson, who was very good against WVU in KU’s Big 12 tournament semifinal win last season in Kansas City, Missouri, leads the Jayhawks at 18.8 points per game. The list goes on, and Huggins said he and his staff have known what was coming when it was time to take on the Big 12 portion of West Virginia’s schedule.
WVU’s win against then-No. 2 Ohio State started a stretch for the Mountaineers that includes Saturday’s game at No. 2 Kansas, a Monday road game against an Oklahoma State team for which Huggins has high praise, then back home on Jan. 11 to take on a likely ranked Texas Tech team that was the national runner-up last season.
“We’ve been trying to prepare them from the beginning,” Huggins said. “This is going to be hard. This isn’t going to be easy. We start out with, I think, two of the better teams in the league. Oklahoma State has had some losses, but really, they lost the key to what they do for five games [sophomore point guard Isaac Likekele], and I think they lost four of them. He’s back now, and I think they’re one of the better teams in the league. Kansas is obviously one of the better teams in the league.”
OSCAR’S NO GROUCH
West Virginia was fortunate to find ways to win against Ohio State with one of its best players — freshman forward Oscar Tshiebwe — relegated to the bench for most of the game with foul trouble.
Tshiebwe played just eight minutes in the upset of the Buckeyes, and when asked about the freshman’s temperament during extended stays on the bench, Huggins said there were no problems in that department.
“He has been great,” Huggins said. “He just wants to learn and continue to get better. He knows when he’s wrong. He doesn’t pout or anything. If you noticed toward the end of the Ohio State game, when we took control he’s [on the bench] dancing and cheering and encouraging his teammates.”