A little bit banged up with some flu concerns and the No. 4 team in the country coming in, West Virginia’s first home basketball game since a 73-51 win over Northeastern on Dec. 29 is sure to be no picnic.
But between last week’s departure of Oscar Tshiebwe and the normal woes that come with being West Virginia on the road in the Big 12 Conference, No. 14 WVU (9-3 overall, 2-2 Big 12) has already stared down its fair share of adversity.
According to coach Bob Huggins, it won’t get any easier heading into Saturday’s game against No. 4 Texas.
“We’re banged up man, we’re not what we were going into last week, that’s for sure,” Huggins said.
The Mountaineers will host the Longhorns with tipoff scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Coliseum. The game will air on ESPN.
WVU and its roster of 11 minus Tshiebwe and Isaiah Cottrell, who was lost for the season with an Achilles injury, has been down four players in practice, with starters Sean McNeil (toe) and Derek Culver (leg) nursing injuries and two other unidentified players dealing with the flu.
It’s certainly not an ideal way to prepare for a Longhorns team (9-1, 3-0) that is surging. Huggins said this is “by far” the best team Texas has had under sixth-year coach Shaka Smart, and with a balanced attack in terms of scoring, rebounding and the league’s best defense — opponents are shooting just 38.3% from the floor — the Longhorns will offer a challenge across the board.
“Pretty much everything,” Huggins said when asked what Texas does well. “I think the difference in their team is the experience they have at their guard positions. Their guards are playing well, very poised, know what Shaka wants done, so I think that’s the biggest difference. You can probably add in a couple high school All-Americans, but I think the guards make them go.”
Those guards — senior Matt Coleman, junior Courtney Ramey and junior Andrew Jones — are also leading the Longhorns in scoring and are tightly grouped statistically.
Coleman averages 13.7 points and 4.6 assists, Ramey is averaging 13.3 points and is the team’s best 3-point shooter at 44.4% (20 of 45) and Andrew Jones averages 13.1 points and 4.6 rebounds.
Though no one averages more than 7.3 rebounds (freshman forward Greg Brown), the Longhorns have a rebounding margin of plus-6.3 per game and are suffocating opponents, particularly on the perimeter, where teams are shooting just 25.7% against Texas.
“I think to a large degree the defense is because of the athleticism they have,” Huggins said. “They’ve got shot blocker after shot blocker and shot changer after shot changer, and their guards are good. You’ve got guards that have been in this league for quite awhile that understand and they put a lot of pressure on the ball. This is I think a way better team than we’ve seen before.”
The Mountaineers went 1-1 on the road after Tshiebwe announced he was leaving the team last Thursday, seeing a second-half rally fall short in a 75-71 loss at Oklahoma before finishing one off, coming from 19 back to pick up an 87-84 win at Oklahoma State.
In some ways, it’s been a bit like reinventing the wheel for WVU as its offensive identity has had to change from pounding the inside to surrounding Culver with four guards and relying more on slashing and outside shooting.
“Us getting more space,” WVU point guard Miles “Deuce” McBride said. “We’re more guard-oriented and I think if we can space it out and throw it to a guy like Derek where he’s [isolated in the post] and we space around him. He’s a good enough passer to find the open guys.”
Dealing with significant health issues while still in the process of overhauling its offensive and defensive philosophies and personnel rotations, West Virginia is going through a lot, and a matchup against one of the country’s hottest and best teams would seem to be the last thing that would help.
But Huggins is confident that his team will regroup and be ready, mainly because in many ways overcoming adversity has become this team’s calling card.
“They’ll respond,” Huggins said. “They always do.”