There’s no question that the Kansas Jayhawks have been the best team in the country thus far. They were without freshman forward Cheick Diallo in a 79-73 loss to Michigan State, in what was only their 2nd game of the season. Since then, they have rattled off 13 straight victories, including wins over UCLA, Vanderbilt, Oregon State, Baylor, Texas Tech and a 3OT victory over #2 Oklahoma just last week.
The Jayhawks are on a roll, but standing in their way tonight is another red-hot team in the Big 12, Bob Huggins’s West Virginia Mountaineers. Huggy Bear has his team playing at a very high level, with their lone blemish a 70-54 loss to Virginia. The last time Kansas visited Morgantown, they were stunned by a game-winning layup from Juwan Staten, as West Virginia pulled off the 63-62 upset.
There is much more on the line this time around, as the winner will have sole possession of 1st place in the Big 12.
Key for West Virginia: Pressure Defense
The Mountaineers are known for their intense defensive pressure. They go into a full-court press after any made basket, and the stats show that they are one of the best defensive teams in the nation, and are almost definitely the toughest defense that Kansas will have faced so far this season. KenPom has WVU ranked 7th in defensive efficiency, thanks mostly to their #1 rating in turnover percentage and steal percentage. They play a defense similar to the “Havoc” style defense implemented by Coach Shaka Smart at VCU. They are led by Daxter Miles Jr. (2.1 SPG), Jevon Carter (2.0 SPG) and Tarik Phillip (1.9 SPG). These guards will make life very difficult for the likes of Wayne Selden Jr., Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason.
Key for Kansas: Balance
The two things that I believe have allowed Kansas to be successful this year are depth and balance. The Jayhawks have 10 players who average at least 10 minutes a game, and that does not include Cheick Diallo. In addition to that incredible depth, they are one of two teams (Oklahoma) rated in the top-10 in offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom. The Jayhawks are one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation, but West Virginia is one of the best at defending the 3-point line, which could mean that Kansas will have to rely on their presence in the paint, led by Perry Ellis, Landen Lucas and Jamari Traylor.
WVU Player to Watch: F Devin Williams
Williams, a 6’9″ forward from Cincinnati, is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Mountaineers, averaging 14.5 points and 8.6 boards a game. That being said, he did a lot of his damage early in the season. After scoring 18-plus points in five of WVU’s first seven games, Williams hasn’t scored more than 15 points in a game since December 5. I believe that Williams must return to his dominant form if West Virginia is going to pull off the upset tonight.
KU Player to Watch: G Wayne Selden Jr.
While Perry Ellis is the seasoned veteran of the team, I think the Jayhawks will only go as far as Wayne Selden Jr. takes them. Selden is averaging 15.5 points per game, and he is shooting just over 50 percent from 3-point range. West Virginia defends the 3-point arc better than any team Kansas has faced this season, so it will be interesting to see how much trouble, if any, Selden has finding open shots. The Jayhawks will try to do a lot of damage in the paint, but they’ll still need Selden to produce if they’re going to win this ballgame. In two games against West Virginia last season, Selden only scored a combined 8 points, including an 0-5 clip from distance.
This will be a fun basketball game to watch. Kansas is arguably the most balanced team in Division I basketball, but this is going to be one of their toughest tests. Morgantown is a crazy sports town, and it’s going to be a very hostile environment. West Virginia’s defensive pressure will bother the Jayhawks, and this game will come down to the final few possessions. I would not be surprised at all if West Virginia is able to wear down Kansas and pull off the victory, but this Kansas team is much better than the one that took the heartbreaking loss last year. I believe Kansas will win this game 68-64.