Bob Huggins and the No. 17-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers will make the trip back west to Bramlage Coliseum tonight to take on K-State with second place in the conference up for grabs.
West Virginia enters fresh off a thrilling overtime win against TCU this past weekend, a rebound performance following a 27-point thrashing by Texas a week before.
“It made them in a better mood yesterday,” Huggins said during Monday’s Big 12 teleconference. “But this is a hard league — a hard, hard league. You can’t get too full of yourself, and you can’t get too far down. If you get too far down you get buried, and if you get too full of yourself, then you get knocked off. We try to preach even keel. I don’t think this group has suffered from a lack of confidence. Obviously, we’re not any different from anyone else. We have a lot of things we need to get better at. I don’t think confidence has been an issue.”
The Mountaineers (16-3, 4-2) have been one of the many surprises in the Big 12 this season. Picked to finish near the bottom half of the Big 12 in the preseason poll, Huggins and his team have hitched their wagon to great defense and Big 12 preseason player of the year Juwan Staten.
One of the top-four scorers in the league, Staten shined against the Horned Frogs Saturday, tallying 18 points and 14 assists after scoring a season low three points and zero assists in the blowout loss against Texas.
“He’s (Staten) healthy. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Huggins said. “He played through some stuff. He played through some stuff at Texas Tech. You know, he lost some weight. I think he’s just getting back to the point where he’s healthy and bouncy again. It’s hard to make shots when you don’t have that bounce. But, he’s the engine that drives the train so we need him to play well.”
Aside from Staten, one of West Virginia’s biggest weapons is how adept they are in forcing turnovers. The Mountaineers are tops in the Big 12 in turnover margin at plus-9.95 per game. The closest team behind them, Iowa State, is plus-2.11 per game.
Meanwhile, K-State (13-8, 5-2) is eighth in the conference with a minus-0.063 turnover margin. Wildcats head coach Bruce Weber indicated that turnovers will be a key factor tonight.
“You’re going to turn it over against them. Everyone turns it over against them,” Weber said. “I think it’s around 20 turnovers they cause a game. TCU had the game won in regulation and I still think they had 19 or 20 turnovers. I think the key will not be multiple turnovers, three or four in a row. Huggins has this team playing so hard. They just keep coming at you whether it’s full court or half court, and you know it’s their style. The other thing is once you turn it over, get back on defense and make sure you limit their easy looks and make them earn points.”
K-State is coming off one of its best performances of the year in a vengeance-style 63-53 win over Oklahoma State at Bramlage Coliseum Saturday.
The game included the Wildcats’ patented suffocating defense and a monster game by senior forward Nino Williams, who had 20 points and seven rebounds on the afternoon.
Weber has been pleased with what he’s seen over the past several weeks in terms of improvement, but with West Virginia tonight and Kansas on the road Saturday, the jury is still out on K-State’s turnaround.
“I think we’ll know a little bit more about where we sit and how we play after this week,” Weber said. “Since the first Oklahoma State game, I thought we played really good basketball. We’ve guarded, we’ve gotten good high percentage shots. You could have given us an ‘A’ if we would’ve found a way to beat Iowa State. But this is a huge week. We have two ranked teams. Obviously protecting home court is very important to us. West Virginia has got to be our sole focus and we’ll see if we can grind out a win against them and then go to the next one.”
The Mountaineers will be the fifth-ranked team the Wildcats have played this season and the fourth in a little over two weeks.
Tipoff is set for 6:00 p.m. from Bramlage Coliseum.