7:00 PM EST, ESPN+ – Line: Kansas -1, Over/Under: 132.5
A key Big XII battle is on hand as the No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks hit the road to face the No. 14 West Virginia Mountaineers from WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, West Virginia. Following an underwhelming, injury-ravaged 26-10 campaign in which their fourteen-year reign over the Big XII came to an end, before getting bounced out of the NCAA Tournament in the Second Round (their earliest ousting in a decade), this season was always going to be an arduous one for Kansas (20-3, 9-1 in Big XII), who found themselves squarely in the crosshairs of the NCAA, when the association notified them of a slew of infractions that were being investigated, many of which could carry heavy consequences. Playing this term under the specter of NCAA Investigation in never ideal, let alone for an elite program such as this, and neither is an ugly brawl involving a number of their players spilling out into the audience, which was the case at the conclusion of their annual meeting with instate rival, Kansas State. That melee only served as yet another black eye for the Jayhawks, who saw Junior Forward, Silvio De Sousa (2.6 PTS, 47.1% FG, 66.7% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 14.8 PER), suspended twelve games for his role in the row. Oh, and did we fail to mention that this is also a team that is involved in a genuine race for league supremacy? Coming into tonight’s game, Bill Self’s charges trail top-ranked Baylor by 1.5 games in league play, with a seismic rematch in Waco to be contested in just ten days time. Of course, Kansas was handled in their previous meeting, a 55-67 loss at Allen Fieldhouse, an affair in which they were blitzed early, falling into a hole that they never managed to climb out of. However, since that defeat the ‘Hawks are unbeaten, winning eight consecutive games to remain in striking distance of the Bears, and despite the lingering controversy that has surrounded them, this is a group that remarkably persevered through said adversity. In comparison to last year’s unit, this particular team is healthier, more experienced, and deeper than it’s predecessor, thanks in large part to the healthy return of Senior Center, Udoka Azubuike (13.0 PTS, 75.9% FG, 9.7 REB, 2.6 BLK, 29.5 PER). The towering Nigerian missed all but nine games last season after tearing ligaments in his Left Hand, only to return with a vengeance in 2019-20; Azubuike has served as a reference point on both ends of the court, drawing double-teams and creating second-chance opportunities on the offensive glass, while anchoring arguably the stoutest defense in the league as a major deterrent in the Paint. Simply put, Kansas absolutely missed his presence last year, and their improved efficiency on both ends proves it; the Jayhawks have been truly ELITE defensively thus far, ranking in the Top-10 nationally in a number of categories including Points Allowed (60.3), Field Goal Percentage Defense (37.5%), and Free-Throws Allowed (8.9), while pacing the Big XII in Field Goal Percentage Defense (36.5%), Two-Point Field Goal Percentage Defense (41.4%), Free-Throws Allowed (7.6), Defensive Rebounds (28.7), and Blocks (6.1). Offensively, they’ve been solid too, and even though they may not shoot as well as you’d like them to from the perimeter (32.2%, 5th in Big XII), they rarely turn the basketball over (11.9, 1st in Big XII), and overwhelm their opposition in the Paint, where they’ve shot a stellar 51.1% (1st in Big XII), which is again largely due to Azubuike’s presence. When we last saw them, Self earned himself and the program a couple of huge milestones, with the 57-Year Old becoming the second-youngest coach in college basketball history to win 700 Games, while Kansas enjoyed their thirty-first straight 20-Win Season, pulling into a tie with North Carolina for the most such campaigns in history. The 60-46 drubbing of struggling TCU was never in question, as the visiting side overcame a relatively slow start in which they missed each of their first Eight Shots to string together a 13-3 run that eventually put them ahead 31-18 at Halftime. Azubuike keyed that initial run, accounting for all but three points of that particular burst, on his way towards notching his tenth Double-Double of the year, totaling Twenty Points on 10-of-14 shooting (71.4%), Fifteen Rebounds and Five Blocks. Sophomore Guard, Devon Dotson (18.0 PTS, 46.5% FG, 28.1% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 4.4 AST, 2.1 STL, 25.2 PER), who was the only other player to end the night in Double-Figures, added Eighteen Points on 7-of-17 shooting (41.2%), along with Six Rebounds, Eleven Assists, and Three Steals. Though they only shot 4-of-13 from beyond the arc (30.8%), 8-of-13 from the Free-Throw Line (61.5%) and committed Fifteen Turnovers, the Jayhawks made up for it by relegating the Horned Frogs to a scant 35.2% shooting overall, including 5-of-22 from downtown (22.7%), and 3-of-9 from the Charity Stripe (33.3%), while forcing them into Fifteen Turnovers and outrebounding them 38-30. Now they’ll look to continue their success on the road within league play at West Virginia, whom they edged 60-53 in their Big XII Opener from Lawrence, Kansas.
Meanwhile, tonight’s meeting with Kansas begins a crucial stretch for West Virginia (18-5. 6-4 in Big XII), who will see their next encounters with the No. 3 and No. 1 teams in the country. At 6-4 in league play, the Mountaineers are currently 4.5 games behind Baylor in the Conference Standings, with these next two contests likely to shape where they’ll be in the end. Needless to say, they could rise up the Standings and Rankings in short order, or they could plummet to .500 just as quickly. And it’s with that said that Bob Huggins will have to correct the mistakes made by his side in last weekend’s 59-69 loss on the road at Oklahoma, which saw a number of things that typically go his charges’ way do exactly the opposite. This season, they’ve been one of the elite teams in the country in terms of rebounding, ranking Third Overall in Offensive Rebounding (15.2) and 34th in Total Rebounding (41.4), along with Fourth in Rebounding Margin (Plus-8.7), while also proving adept at controlling the tempo of the game by getting to the Free-Throw Line, where they’ve attempted the twelfth-most Free-Throws in the nation (24.8), leading the Big XII in both Free-Throws Made (15.9) and Attempted (25.5). However, you wouldn’t get the sense of any of that after watching their loss to the Sooners. Through the first 9:35 of action, the visiting side outrebounded the hosts 14-7, only to be bested on the glass 35-27 the rest of the way, eventually leading to a 41-42 disadvantage, which served as just the fourth tie all year that they’ve been outrebounded in a game. Furthermore, attempted a miniscule EIGHT Free-Throws, making just five, whereas the home side enjoyed a much longer stay at the Charity Stripe, knocking down 18-of-21 (85.7%). As is usually the case with Huggins’ teams, if they cannot manufacture a plethora of opportunities through their work on the glass or by getting to the line, then they’re going to struggle offensively, which is precisely what happened here. West Virginia could muster a season-low 31.6% shooting from the field, including a dismal 18-of-61 (29.5%) from inside the arc, remarkably missing 11-of-31 Layups (35.5%). If not for nailing five straight Three-Pointers to end the affair, this dreadful shooting display would have looked a lot worse than it did. Interestingly enough, the one thing that the venerable Head Coach has been known for the most, his aggressive, pressing Defense has been something of an afterthought this year, with West Virginia, or Press Virginia, as they’ve come to be called, has rarely gotten after their opponents in such a manner. Huggins has openly admitted that he’d love to do it more frequently, but his young team simply isn’t very good at executing it. The Mountaineers are indeed young, with the Rotation consisting primarily of Freshmen and Sophomores, with an average of 1.1 years of experience overall, placing them as one of the youngest teams in the Big XII. With that said, they’ve still managed to harass the opposition, forcing 17.2 Turnover per Game in league play, the second-most in the conference. This should make for an interesting contrast in styles when they matchup with Kansas tonight, for as we covered earlier, the Jayhawks have been the best in the Big XII at taking care of the basketball. When they met back on January 4th at Allen Fieldhouse, they managed to get after the hosts just enough to make them uncomfortable, forcing more Turnovers (13) than Assists Allowed (11), but simply couldn’t keep it going in the Second Half, where they were outscored 23-36. If you thought their offensive showing against Oklahoma was poor, then you’ll cringe at this particular performance; West Virginia shot just 32.2% from the field, including a dismal 16-of-45 from within the arc (35.6%) and miserable 3-of-14 beyond it (21.4%), while making only 12-of-22 Free-Throws (54.5%). Granted, they battered Kansas on the glass, outrebounding them 41-27, including 18-8 on the offensive end, which helped create a dozen more Shot Attempts, but their struggles when in possession were so great that they couldn’t overcome them; in one of the sloppiest showings in recent memory, the visitors committed Sixteen Turnovers in comparison to handing out a disappointing Seven Assists. That, ladies and gentlemen, simply will not get it done, no matter what level of basketball you may be playing. Energetic Freshman Forward, Oscar Tshiebwe (11.5 PTS, 58.1% FG, 9.1 REB, 1.2 BLK, 27.7 PER), led the way with Seventeen Points on 6-of-10 shooting (60.0%) and a whopping Seventeen Rebounds (8 Offensive), a Steal and a pair of Blocks, while fellow Frosh Guard, Miles McBride (9.8 PTS, 42.1% FG, 35.7% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.0 STL, 18.2 PER), added Thirteen Points off the Bench, but only shot 4-of-11 (36.3%) himself. Dating back to 2017, the Mountaineers have bested the Jayhawks on only one occasion in nine meetings, though that lone victory came in their last affair in Morgantown, a narrow 65-64 triumph in which the hosts forced Eighteen Turnovers and limited the hosts to a scant Six Assists.