It was the win of the year for the Kansas State men’s basketball team on Tuesday night, taking down No. 7 Oklahoma (14-6, 9-5) in a 62-57 thriller. Now on a two-game win streak, K-State (7-18, 5-12) has yet another shot to take down a top 10 team on Saturday — No. 10 West Virginia.
The Mountaineers proved once again it is one of the top teams in the Big 12 Conference and it has shown throughout the 2020-21 season, coming into Saturday’s matchup with a 16-6 record overall and a 9-4 record in the Big 12.
This is not the West Virginia team of old though, where it was all about the “Press Virginia” defense, in fact, this team struggled defensively and currently sits at ninth in the Big 12 in scoring defense, allowing 72.1 points per game. This team can score though, averaging 77.6 points per game while having two of the top 10 scorers in the Big 12 in sophomore Miles McBride and junior Derek Culver.
The Mountaineers come off of two hard-fought road wins, including an 84-82 victory over No. 14 Texas. West Virginia had its opportunity to make it three in a row stripped away as their marquee matchup at No. 2 Baylor on Thursday was canceled.
“Tough, tough challenge on Saturday at West Virginia,” head coach Bruce Weber said while previewing the game at his press conference on Thursday morning. “Oklahoma is playing really well and actually beat them recently, but West Virginia is playing at a high level. It’s amazing what Bob Huggins has been able to do, especially the consecutive wins on the road.”
Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins is a familiar face for many K-State fans — he was the head coach for the Wildcats in the 2006-2007 season before resigning. His resume since he left speaks for itself, taking West Virginia to nine NCAA Tournaments, five sweet sixteens and one final four.
Another NCAA tournament is inevitable for Huggins and the Mountaineers this season with the success the team has. The young guard McBride proved himself as one of the top players in the Big 12, averaging 16.1 points per game and a team-high 42.7 percent from beyond the arc while also leading the team in steals with 38.
Right behind him is the junior forward Culver with the top field goal percentage on the team, shooting at a 49.6 percent clip and averaging 15.1 points per game while also leading the team in rebounds, averaging 10.1 per game.
While Saturday’s game might seem like a tall task for K-State looking at the matchup on paper, this K-State team improved drastically over the past three weeks.
And Weber knows that.
“Yeah, I don’t think there’s any doubt. You saw it even in the games where we didn’t win,” Weber said. “We’ve had a little bit of continuity even though the other night we were still missing players. Our core group is there. They’ve figured out some roles, what they can do and how they can help the team. Now the big step is figuring out how to win.”
Keeping games close with No. 18 Texas Tech, No. 14 Texas and at the time No. 23 Oklahoma State gave K-State the confidence it needed leading into the two-game winning streak that the team has right now — capped off with the upset victory over No. 7 Oklahoma.
While shooting is K-State’s weak spot this season, ranking last in almost all scoring categories, it is the defense that stepped up over this past month. Holding the last two opponents to under 60 points has been crucial to K-State’s success and it is something that the Wildcats need to keep up down the stretch.
“I called Coach Southwell and asked him what we had to do against TCU,” Weber said. “He said, ‘Coach, we gotta score’. I told him that I think it’s the other way. We’ve gotta stop them. We haven’t scored. That’s not changing right now. … If we can continue this through the last stretch of the season, it gives us a chance to be competitive and find ways to get wins, too.”
DaJuan Gordon’s return from injury was helpful for K-State’s offense, as he scored in double digits in two out of the three games he’s played in since his return. His performances took a back seat to senior guard Mike McGuirl’s play over the past two games, leading the team in scoring, including some clutch threes in crunch time.
Sophomore forward Antonio Gordon and junior guard Rudi Williams’ return is also a boost for the Wildcats on Saturday, but currently, the status of both players is up in the air.
It’s going to take a lot for K-State to pull off a second straight upset victory on Saturday, but who knows? The way K-State played lately, a victory over No. 10 West Virginia is a lot more possible than it was the last time the two teams met on Jan. 23 where the Mountaineers dominated the Wildcats 69-47.
“This group has been really resilient,” Weber said. “They want to do well. When we’ve lost, they’ve come in and watched film. When we’ve won, they’ve been in to watch film. … I told them three weeks ago that I don’t want the season to end.”
Saturday’s game is set for a 3 p.m. tip-off on ESPN2.