WVU Faces Baylor In Big 12 Opener

MORGANTOWN — The one constant during the last two Big 12 Championship Tournaments was that No. 18 West Virginia was one of the two teams fighting for a title on Saturday night.

If the No. 18 Mountaineers (22-9, 11-7 Big 12) are to accomplish that feat for a third consecutive season, it is going to have to overcome a Baylor Bears squad (18-13, 8-10) that will be looking for a measure of revenge for two regular season losses to the team from the Mountain State.

“They are a very good team with a Hall of Fame coach,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “And, they are led by the best defensive player in our conference — senior Jevon Carter — and perhaps the entire country.”

Carter, a finalist for several All-American teams, was selected by the league’s coaches as the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight year and onto the Big 12 First Team.

“I think it starts with his work ethic,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “He’s got great feet and he has very quick hands.”

A pair of attributes that has made him a nightmare for opposing coaches to game plan for as well as placing him in a position to lead his Mountaineers back to the championship game for a third straight year.

“They were struggling and (Drew) found a way to get them to playing extremely well,” Huggins said. “They have multiple guys who are capable of scoring 20 points a night and it’s tough going against that zone.”

But, that will be the challenge for the third seeded Mountaineers when they take on the No. 6 seeded Bears at 9 p.m. in the Sprint Center (18,972) in Kansas City.

“I’ve said for months that we’ve got to make shots,” Huggins said. “We haven’t guarded like we traditionally have guarded the ball and we haven’t rebounded like we’ve traditionally rebounded the ball. So, that means that we have to make shots.

“It’s a combination. My guys are asking all the time ‘what do we have to do to win’ and I say, ‘you’ve got to make shots.’ We had open shots at the end of the Texas game and we didn’t make them.”

WVU is coming off an 87-79 overtime loss to Texas, while the Bears have lost three of their last four games after a five-game winning streak.

Baylor is led offensively by senior guard Manu Lecomte — a Big 12 second-team selection — and senior forward Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., who was named to the All-Big 12 third team. Lecomte enters his final Big 12 Tournament averaging 15.7 points per game while Lual-Acuil Jr. chips in 14.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per outing.

Rounding out the expected starting five for Drew will be junior Jake Lindsey (4.6) at the other guard with freshmen Tristan Clark (6.9) and Mark Vital (7.2) joining Lual-Acuil Jr. at forward.

If any of that group struggles, look for Drew to go to his bench early for Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year Terry Maston.

West Virginia will counter with Carter (17.0 ppg) and senior Daxter Miles Jr. (12.1) at the guards with junior Esa Ahmad (10.3) and sophomores Wesley Harris (5.7) and Sagaba Konate (10.8, 7.9 rpg) at the forwards.

Konate, who joined Carter on the Big 12 All-Defensive Team, came within one blocked shot of having a triple-double against the Bears in a 71-60 WVU win at the Ferrell Center on Feb. 20. WVU’s Sultan of Swat accounted for 10 points, 10 rebounds and nine blocked shots in 29 minutes of action in that contest and has blocked 16 shots total in the teams’ two meetings.

“This league doesn’t have a bottom, the Big East had a bottom,” Huggins said when asked to compare the two conferences. “There’s no bottom in this league. There’s no bottom in coaching.”

Huggins will go to his bench early and often as well, so fans can expect to see sophomores Lamont West (10.2), James ‘Beetle’ Bolden (9.5), and freshman Teddy Allen (6.9). Chase Harler (1.9) and Logan Routt (1.0) could also see time as Huggins will utilize his numbers in order to keep his team fresh for the four-day tournament.