How a pair of 5% stunners involving West Virginia shaped the 2019 Big 12 basketball race
Everybody knows that Bob Huggins’ West Virginia squad that will come to Allen Fieldhouse for a 3 p.m. clash with Kansas on Saturday has had a rough season and is no threat to win the Big 12 Conference.
But people might be surprised to learn just how much of an impact the 2-9 Mountaineers have had in helping determine which team will win it and how.
While Texas Tech (8-4), Iowa State (7-4) and Baylor (7-4) are all still very much alive in the race, all eyes locally have pared this thing down to a 2-horse race between Kansas (8-4) and Kansas State (9-2).
The fact that those two face each other one more time — 8 p.m. Feb. 25 at Allen Fieldhouse — is merely a bonus.
And that game, which no doubt is on the short list of most important KU-K-State games in the past few decades, almost certainly will have a major impact on which team wins this league. And which team doesn’t.
But there were two games earlier this season, both involving Huggins’ Mountaineers, that might wind up playing the wildest role in where the 2019 Big 12 trophy winds up.
Here's a quick look back at those games along with the similar set of circumstances that led to results that, at least as of today, have put Kansas on the outside looking in in its quest to extend its NCAA-record of consecutive Big 12 regular season titles to 15 in a row.
Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019
— Manhattan, Kansas —
Already sitting at 0-2 in the league and with preseason all-conference forward Dean Wade out with an injury, the Wildcats were in a world of hurt.
Down 36-21 at the half and trailing by as many as 21 points in the second half, the Wildcats, against all odds, somehow stormed all the way back to claim a 71-69 victory that very well might have saved the Wildcats’ season and sent the Mountaineers spiraling further downward.
When WVU grabbed a 42-21 with 17:53 to play in the second half, it put the Mountaineers’ win probability at 95.3 percent, according to KenPom.com. That meant the Wildcats had just a 4.7 percent chance of winning the game at that point. Yet they did.
K-State’s first lead of the game came at the 2:30 mark of the second half, when the Wildcats went ahead 68-66. A little more than 2 minutes later, KSU sealed the improbable victory when senior Barry Brown Jr. hit a leaner with 28.9 seconds to play to give the Wildcats the win.
It marked K-State’s second win in the past 11 meetings between the two Big 12 foes and put KSU on the path to nine consecutive conference wins (and counting?).
“You’re proud of them. You’re happy for them,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said after the comeback victory. “Obviously, as a coach, you take a deep breath, and (ask) now can we move forward and play with that same sense of composure? That sense of urgency? That competitive spirit in the second half?”
I think Weber got his answer.
Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019
— Morgantown, W.Va. —
Fast-forward 10 days to the hills of West Virginia, where a 15-2 Kansas team, ranked No. 7 in the nation, walked into WVU Coliseum as a 5.5-point favorite and walked out heartbroken.
Despite leading for more than 26 minutes of the game, including nearly the entire second half, the Jayhawks suffered a colossal collapse in the game’s final 2 minutes and walked away from a building they historically have struggled in on the wrong end of a 65-64 result.
Tied at 23 at the half, after a 20-minute stretch that KU coach Bill Self said, “set basketball back a few decades,” Kansas began to take control early in the second half.
Although they missed a handful of opportunities to run away and hide, the Jayhawks maintained a lead of between 3-6 points for most of the second half and always seemed to answer with a big shot when WVU threatened to tie the game or trim KU’s lead to a single possession.
At the 2:35 mark of the second half, with Kansas leading 64-58, the KenPom.com win probability model gave the Jayhawks a 94.6 percent chance of winning, which meant that the Mountaineers’ chances of pulling off the comeback sat at just 5.4 percent at that time.
However, like K-State 10 days earlier, the Mountaineers found a way to defy the odds, holding KU scoreless the rest of the way and closing the game on a 7-0 run that led to a 1-point victory, which became official when Lagerald Vick elected to take — a miss — a jumper in the game’s final seconds instead of trying to drive to the rim for an easier shot or the chance to get fouled.
Drawing a foul, which certainly was no guarantee, but no doubt would have been the better play, would’ve put Vick at free throw line for 2 shots with very little time remaining.
“Broken floor. Double bonus. Down one. You drive it,” Self said.
Kansas didn’t, and the Mountaineers came away with one of their two Big 12 wins to date.
Two struggling teams facing a roughly 5 percent chance of winning a game in mid-January found a way to get it done. One benefited Kansas State. The other hurt Kansas.
And just like that, you’re talking about a 2-game swing in the conference standings.
Had the two teams that were on the extremely high side of KenPom’s win probability totals those particular nights come through, the Jayhawks would enter this weekend’s rematch with the Mountaineers at 9-3 in the Big 12, instead of 8-4, and Kansas State would be sitting at 8-3 instead of 9-2. At least theoretically, and assuming all other outcomes remained the same.
The Jayhawks, therefore, would have a half-game lead with 6 to play instead of trailing by a game and half.
All of that because of two January games involving a West Virginia team that probably cannot wait for the 2018-19 season to come to an end — one WVU collapse and one WVU comeback.
Self has always been a big fan of pointing out that, when it comes to an 18-game, round-robin conference schedule, all games matter the same, even if there are some contests — a showdown between the top two teams in the league standings or a late-season, must win for the team on top — that seem to carry extra importance.
These two games, and what transpired because of their outcomes, are a great example of what Self means.