With two regular season games remaining, West Virginia’s men’s basketball team is in a spot where it can’t afford to lose.
The Mountaineers (16-13, 8-8 Big 12) haven’t given up hopes of getting back on the NCAA Tournament bubble just yet, and with No. 23 Oklahoma and No. 8 Kansas left on the schedule, there’s still an opportunity to add some impressive lines on the résumé.
But there’s no room for error. That’s also the case in the Big 12 standings, where the Mountaineers currently sit sixth, in position for the final bye in the Big 12 Tournament. WVU could still finish as high as fourth, but it could also slide close to the bottom with Oklahoma State (8-9) and Baylor (7-9) nipping on its heels.
The final stretch begins tonight in Norman, Okla., when the Mountaineers take on the No. 23 Sooners (21-8, 10-6) at the Lloyd Noble Center at 9 p.m. Eastern. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.
WVU beat the Sooners in Morgantown on Feb. 5 — capturing a 91-86 overtime classic. Since that time, though, the Mountaineers have won just two of their last six games, falling off the NCAA bubble. OU, meanwhile, has won four of its last six and is coming off a 77-65 win over No. 24 Texas.
The Sooners, currently in a three-way tie with Iowa State and Texas for second place in the league, are led by sophomore guard Buddy Hield, who’s averaging 16.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Senior forward Cameron Clark is averaging 15 points and 5.5 boards, and Isaiah Cousins, a sophomore guard, is contributing 10.9 points per outing.
The two that hurt WVU most in the first meeting, though, were freshman guard Jordan Woodard and sophomore forward Ryan Spangler.
Woodard scored 23 points and dished out eight assists in that game, while Spangler had nine rebounds.
“Ryan’s been fantastic,” said OU head coach Lon Kruger, whose team ranks 11th nationally with 82.3 points per game. “Obviously he’s a tremendous rebounder, and he’s improved on the offensive end. His competitiveness and his toughness has helped elevate our other guys in those areas.”
West Virginia had some big performances in that game, as well. Sophomore guard Eron Harris, who’s averaging 18 points per game, scored 28, including a clutch 3-pointer that sent the game to overtime. Junior point guard Juwan Staten flirted with a triple-double, scoring 20 points to go along with 10 rebounds and six assists.
“He’s had a phenomenal season,” said WVU head coach Bob Huggins of Staten, who’s averaging 19 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game. “He’s the first person in West Virginia history to have 500 points, 150 rebounds and 150 assists. When you think that Jerry (West) or Hot Rod (Hundley) or Rod Thorn didn’t do that, or any of the great players we’ve had, he’s had a phenomenal year.”
With those two backcourt stars, Huggins is still confident his team can make a stretch run. The Mountaineers have already beaten most of the league’s top teams, including Iowa State, Oklahoma and Kansas State.
“It comes down to us making some shots,” he said. “We don’t score it well close. So when we’ve made shots, we’ve been very competitive. When we haven’t, we’ve struggled.”
The Mountaineers will be without sophomore guard Terry Henderson, who’s still battling an undisclosed illness. He scored 17 points in the first meeting between the two teams. WVU also isn’t likely to catch an OU team lacking focus.
“West Virginia beat us at their place, so we know how tough they are,” said Kruger. “Bob does a great job, (so there should be) no problem getting our guys to understand how well we have to play to have a chance to win. It’s huge to keep making progress.”
Cam Huffman is sports editor of The Register-Herald. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.