Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 7, 2014

Mountaineers host Kansas before sold out Coliseum

By CAM HUFFMAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BECKLEY — The NCAA Tournament bubble seems to have popped on West Virginia's men's basketball team thanks to a string of five losses in seven games — including a 72-62 defeat Wednesday at Oklahoma.

Unless WVU can make a deep run in next week's Big 12 tournament, a invitation to "The Big Dance" isn't likely to be delivered to Morgantown.

In fact, the Mountaineers (16-14, 8-9 Big 12) may need a victory or two down the stretch — during the final regular season game and into the BIg 12 tournament — just to assure themselves a spot in the National Invitational Tournament, which has taken very few teams over the years that weren't above the .500 mark.

"We're going to play in the postseason," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins, who still hasn't given up hope of finding a way to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time in his career. "I'm not sure which one. A win against (Kansas) would really help. Playing the people we play, you can make a dramatic jump in the RPI in just a couple games."

But brackets and conference standings — WVU is currently in a three-way tie for sixth with Baylor and Oklahoma State with one game to play in a league that is ranked as the nation's best —won't be the biggest motivation today. When Kansas comes to town, it's always about the opponent.

The No. 8 Jayhawks (23-7, 14-3), who recently wrapped up their 10th straight Big 12 regular season title, have won five of their last six games and are considered by many to be a Final Four contender, holding the nation's second-best RPI rating.

KU, which has been to 14 Final Fours and won three national titles, is one of the most storied programs in college basketball.

That's why Huggins has a clause in his contract that awards him a bonus for beating the Jayhawks and why the WVU Coliseum is sold out for today's game, a rematch of an 83-69 KU victory in Lawrence, Kan., on Feb. 8.

"It was a four-point game with 4 minutes to go, and I didn't think we played particularly well," said Huggins, indicating that his team's ability to hang around in that one gives him hope for today. "Terry (Henderson) played probably the worst game he's played since he's been here. Remi (Dibo) made some shots early and then didn't make any. I thought we could have played a lot better."

Today's game — which will tip off at noon and be televised by ESPN — will be the final regular season contest for freshman sensation Andrew Wiggins, the former Huntington Prep star who's expected to be one of the top picks in the NBA Draft after just one college season. Wiggins leads the Jayhawks with 16 points per game, to go along with 5.8 rebounds.

"Generally when you're going to be the first or second pick in the draft, you're pretty good," said Huggins. "He's got great athleticism. He's made plays that very few people could make.

KU's other freshman sensation, center Joel Embiid — also expected to be one of the top picks in the draft — won't play today, resting an injury in order to try to be at full strength for the postseason. Taking away his 11 points and eight rebounds per game should help the Mountaineers, but depth is not a problem for the Jayhawks. Memphis transfer Tarik Black replaced Embiid the last time out against Texas Tech, and he responded by scoring 19 points on 9-for-9 shooting, as well as grabbing six rebounds.

"You lose the No. 1 pick in the draft, and you replace him with a former McDonald's All-American," said Huggins with a smirk. "It's tough. They're talented everywhere, and they're so big and strong inside. They threw four of them at us out there, and now they're down to three."

WVU is dealing with its own injury concerns.

Sophomore guard Terry Henderson, the team's third-leading scorer, has missed four straight games while battling back from an undisclosed injury. He traveled with the team to Oklahoma on Wednesday but did not play. Huggins said his status for today's game is still unclear.

"He hasn't run up and down, so I don't have any idea," said the coach. "He's another guy who can make shots and keep the floor spread. He's another guy that can guard for us. I think he makes a huge difference."

WVU is led by junior point guard Juwan Staten, who's averaging 18.2 points and nearly six assists per game and is a favorite to be a first-team All-Big 12 pick when the awards are announced on Sunday. Sophomore guard Eron Harris is averaging 17.6 points per game, but without Henderson, those two are the only Mountaineers scoring in double figures.

Shady Spring graduate Chase Connor has seen some increased minutes in Henderson's absence. The freshman walk-on hadn't scored all season but has chipped in 12 points in the last two outings, including nine in a win over TCU on Saturday.

•Virginia Tech (9-20, 2-15) will conclude its regular season today at Georgia Tech (14-16, 5-13), which is coming off an upset win over Syracuse. Tip-off is slated for 2 p.m.