By CAM HUFFMAN
for the Daily Telegraph
West Virginia is headed to the NCAA Tournament — well, at least ESPN “Bracketology” expert Joe Lunardi has the Mountaineers (15-10, 7-5 Big 12) as the last team in, receiving a No. 12 seed and playing Georgetown in a play-in game on the tournament’s first day.
That’s not exactly enough to make WVU head coach Bob Huggins sleep well at night. The veteran coach, trying to avoid missing the tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time in his career, knows his team could take a major step toward making that bid more secure with a win on the road against No. 19 Texas (19-5, 8-3 Big 12) at 8 p.m. tonight.
“Texas is No. 24 in the RPI,” said Huggins, whose team has a 66 rating in the RPI, a measurement widely used by the selection committee when handing out tournament bids. “It’s a great chance to move up in the RPI,” Huggins said. “It’s a great chance to move up in the (Big 12 standings, where WVU currently sits in a tie for fifth place). In the history of the Big 12, there’s only been five or six teams that haven’t made the tournament with an RPI in the 50s. So we’re moving in that direction.”
The Mountaineers have looked like an NCAA Tournament team in recent weeks. They’ve won four of their last five games, including victories over No. 21 Oklahoma and No. 11 Iowa State at home in the last 10 days.
What the Mountaineers don’t have is a road win over a Top 50 RPI team.
Texas provides that opportunity, but WVU has some bad memories of the Longhorns. When the teams met in Morgantown on Jan. 13, Texas won 80-69 in a game that wasn’t even that close.
Huggins, though, believes it will be a different WVU team that the Longhorns see tonight.
“I think we’re much better defensively,” he said. “I don’t know how much better we are rebounding the ball with the lineup we’re playing. But defensively we’re better, because our understanding’s better. They’ve experienced more things and have more things to draw on.”
Texas has won eight of its last nine to climb in the polls and to second in the Big 12 race, just one game behind Kansas. The Longhorns did show vulnerability, though, in a 74-57 loss at Kansas State last week and a near-loss to the league’s last place team, TCU, on Feb. 4.
UT bounced back with an 87-68 thrashing of Oklahoma State on Tuesday.
Texas’ top scorer is junior forward Jonathan Holmes, who’s averaging 13.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. He missed Tuesday’s game with an injury, but Huggins expects the 6-foot-8 Texas native to be back when the Mountaineers walk through the door.
“We heal everybody,” said Huggins with a laugh. “We’re the Ernest Angley of college basketball.”
Three other players — Isaiah Taylor (12.5), Javan Felix (12.4) and Cameron Ridley (10.9) — average double figures in scoring for the Longhorns. Taylor also averages a team-high 3.6 assists, while Ridley leads the team with 8.1 rebounds per contest. Felix does a little of everything with 2.9 assists and 1.9 rebounds per game.
“He scores off the bounce,” said Huggins of the sophomore, who scored 19 points with the last meeting with WVU. “He’s a good 3-point shooter. He’s strong and has a great base. He can play point or off the ball. I think he’s really good.”
The biggest concern for WVU may be on the glass. The Longhorns rank fifth nationally with 42 rebounds per game and beat the Mountaineers 49-30 in that category in the last meeting.
WVU is eighth in the Big 12 in rebounding, averaging 35.9 boards per game, and Huggins’ club has played without some of its best rebounders on the floor a lot in recent weeks, subbing out Devin Williams or Brandon Watkins for Remi Dibo, who stands 6-7 but plays mostly on the perimeter.
“I like to win more than I like to rebound,” said Huggins, whose teams have historically been know for their ability to clean up on the glass. “I think (playing Dibo) gives us the best chance to win. We can spread the floor better that way.”
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Those hoping to watch today’s game are out of luck unless they live in Texas or have tickets to the game. Texas’ Longhorn Network has the rights to the television broadcast of tonight’s game and has not released it to other media outlets in this part of the country.
Cam Huffman is sports editor of The Register-Herald. Contact him at email@example.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.