WVU, Kansas Fighting
Loser is likely out of Big 12 title race
MORGANTOWN — When the 2017-18 season opened the consensus among Big 12 coaches that No. 13 Kansas (20-6 overall, 9-4) was the overwhelming favorite to win its 14th consecutive conference crown.
It was also the belief that No. 20 West Virginia (19-7 8-5) would be the best bet if someone other than the Jayhawks walked away with the conference’s regular-season championship.
That was then.
Now, both are looking up at No. 7 Texas Tech (22-4, 10-3) as the final weeks of the regular season roll in and that means that tonight’s 6:15 showdown on ESPN will, in-all-likelihood, allow one team to keep its hope of sitting atop the 10-team league alive while the other will need to win out to just improve its positioning for the upcoming league tournament.
The Jayhawks already have a leg up on their opponents from the Mountain State, having gone into Morgantown on Jan. 15 and overcoming a 11-point deficit over the final 13 minutes to escape with a 71-66 victory. Sophomore Sagaba Konate put together an impressive double-double (16 points, 10 rebounds) while senior Jevon Carter and junior Esa Ahmad contributed 14 and 15 points, respectively, to the Mountaineers cause.
But, those efforts proved to be futile when KU’s Svi Mykhailiuk got hot down the stretch, finishing with a game-high 17 points, to lead a trio of Jayhawks into double digits. Devonte’ Graham and Udoka Azubuike added 16 and 10 apiece while Malik Newman and Lagerald Vick chipped in nine each.
“We just need to go there (Kansas) and play like we are capable of playing for an entire game,” Ahmad said following WVU’s win over TCU. “I figure the winner (of the Big 12) will have five or six losses so we’re not out of it. We just have to keep winning.”
The win allowed Kansas to snap its four-game losing streak inside the Coliseum. This will be the 13th meeting between the two schools with KU holding an 8-4 edge in the series. KU has won five of the last nine contests.
“The Mountaineers and the Jayhawks have some similarities,” Kansas coach Bill Self said during Thursday’s Big 12 teleconference. “They have had some times and we’ve had some times when we haven’t played well.
“But, it’s two teams that have the potential to play well (today).”
Self will stay with his lineup of Graham (17.5 ppg), Vick (12.8) and Newman (12.1) at the guards with Mykhailiuk (15.6) and Azubuike (13.9) at the forwards.
WVU will counter with the same lineup that took to the court against TCU on Monday. Carter (16.9) and Daxter Miles Jr. (11.8) at the guards with Ahmad (9.9) and sophomore Wesley Harris (6.2) and Konate (10.4) at the forwards.
Sophomores Lamont West (10.6) and James ‘Beetle’ Bolden (9.9) and freshman Teddy Allen (7.8) will be the first players off the bench with sophomores Chase Harler (2.2), Maciej Bender (1.5) and Logan Routt (1.2) also expected to see time on the Allen Fieldhouse floor.
West Virginia has never won (0-5) on the home floor of the Jayhawks — the only Big 12 venue where the Mountaineers have not tasted victory since joining the conference in 2012.
WVU’s last visit witnessed the Jayhawks use a 21-7 run over the final 2:20 to send the game into overtime, and then outscored the Mountaineers by a 13-9 margin to pull out the near-miraculous victory.
“We looked at a little bit of the first game,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “We looked at some of the things they ran offensively and some of the things we ran. We are not going to go back to last year.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Huggins and his staff haven’t been paying attention to their biggest nemesis.
“They’re deeper, obviously, than they were the first time we played because of the additions they’ve had,” Huggins said. “I don’t know if we are all that different. We are what we are.”