Friday, February 18, 2022
No. 6 Kansas Jayhawks (21-4 overall, 10-2 Big 12) at West Virginia Mountaineers (14-11 overall, 3-9 Big 12)
Time: 7 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022
Location: WVU Coliseum, Morgantown, West Virginia
TV: ESPN | Radio: IMG Jayhawk Radio Network
1. Get out and go
Kansas won the battle on the boards, 47-38, in the first meeting between these two teams. And while that was big in terms of keeping West Virginia away from second-chance opportunities, the area it impacted the most was that it allowed Kansas to push the pace.
That was particularly true in the second half, when the Jayhawks found success in transition and never stopped running, knocking WVU out with transition bucket after transition bucket.
“We were in transition a lot,” KU sophomore Jalen Wilson said of his memories of the first meeting. “We were able to rebound the ball — we all rebounded well — and when we do that, when we get to running, it just leads to so much for us and so much success for our team.”
The Jayhawks were credited with just 16 fastbreak points in that 85-59 win in Lawrence. But Kansas also dominated 54-20 in points in the paint that day, and many of those points around the rim came from KU’s ability to push the pace and not allow the West Virginia defense to get back and get set.
“We were really clicking offensively,” Wilson said. “Everything seemed to move smooth, but on the road it’s always harder.”
The reason attacking WVU when it’s on its heels is important is simple. The Mountaineers rank 19th nationally in turnover percentage, forcing opponents to give the ball away on 23.1% of their possessions.
Kansas has been pretty good at taking care of the basketball all season, giving it away on just 18.3% of its possessions, which ranks in the top third of Division I. More important than the overall number is the fact that KU ranks 58th in non-steal turnover percentage, meaning that the Jayhawks’ unforced errors are as low as they’ve been in several years.
Credit KU’s veteran lineup for most of that. But the Jayhawks’ ability to play fast and attack in transition has been a huge part of that success, as well.
Beyond that, WVU also leads the Big 12 in blocks (4.8 per game), and shots in transition are far harder to block than shots that come from half-court sets.
2. Defense wins
When teams play West Virginia, so much of the focus tends to be on how they can attack the WVU defense. Thanks largely to West Virginia’s killer press, it’s been that way for years.
But the press today isn’t quite what it once was and the Mountaineers don’t even really use it all that much anymore.
That has allowed teams to shift their approach from worrying about their offense to emphasizing defense.
This WVU team gives opponents plenty of areas to attack. Bob Huggins’ squad ranks just 297th nationally in effective field goal percentage (46.9%) and also is a below-average 3-point and 2-point shooting team, shooting just 31.9% from behind the arc and 46.2% from 2-point range.
WVU also ranks 286th nationally in percentage of points coming from 3-pointers (27.2%), sitting nearly two full percentage points below the national average.
Beyond those specific stats, however, the one area that may be the easiest to emphasize is total points.
The Mountaineers have scored 70 or more in all three of their conference wins so far this season. Compare that to the 63.8-point average in their nine conference losses and it’s easy to see that the teams that can keep WVU from scoring tend to find the most success.
Kansas has not been a great defensive team so far this season, but the Jayhawks’ points-against average has been respectable.
It’s not that 70 is some kind of magic number here. The Mountaineers have scored 70 points or more and lost twice during the Big 12 season. But Huggins’ club has yet to win a Big 12 game without reaching 70, so it makes sense that the number could be significant and would be a good goal to set for the Jayhawks’ defense.
Consider this stat on the flip side of things: WVU has won 134 of its last 148 games when holding opponents to fewer than 69 points.
For the season, WVU is averaging 68.3 points per game, while Kansas, which scores 79.5 points per game, is surrendering 68.3. In conference play alone, WVU’s average offensive output has dipped to 66.2 points per game.
A big key to keeping WVU’s point total down is keeping the Mountaineers off the free throw line. WVU leads the Big 12 in free throw percentage (79.8%), with sophomore forward Jalen Bridges (94.1%) and fifth-year senior guard Malik Curry (90%) ranking first and second in the conference at the free throw line.
3. Hammer the offensive glass
If there’s one dramatic discrepancy between these two that jumps off the page at you when looking at their season stats, it’s how each team handles the offensive glass — specifically, KU’s offense and West Virginia’s defense.
As it showed in the first matchup between these two, West Virginia is not afraid to let opponents dominate the offensive glass.
WVU’s defense ranks 348th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, allowing opponents to get 34.3% of their own misses. That’s six full percentage points higher than the national average, and the Mountaineers, though better, don’t quite do enough on the offensive glass themselves to offset it.
WVU’s offense ranks 120th nationally in getting 30.2% of its misses back.
The Jayhawks, meanwhile, rank 24th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, at 34.5%. Kansas got 41.2% of available offensive rebounds against the Mountaineers the first time.
KU big man David McCormack was responsible for most of that, grabbing 10 of the 14 offensive rebounds the Jayhawks got that day.
According to KenPom, McCormacks’ individual offensive rebounding percentage of 19.7% ranks second nationally. That means when McCormack is on the floor, he gets roughly one of every five missed shots hoisted up by the Jayhawks. So many of those are his own misses, and the senior forward has made it clear that he plays and produces at an elite level on the glass when his energy and activity levels are high.
Several of McCormack’s teammates are also capable of being a factor on the offensive glass. Wilson, Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun all have the athleticism to be a factor on the glass. And reserve big men Mitch Lighfoot, KJ Adams and Zach Clemence have shown the ability to rip down KU misses, therein giving the Kansas offense a chance to reset.
So far this season, the Mountaineers are even on the glass in their 14 wins and -7.7 on the glass in their 11 losses.
The Jayhawks have out-performed their opponent on the offensive glass in just five of their 12 Big 12 games thus far.
“It’s going to be a great game,” Clemence said. “They’re a great team and we just caught them on a bad night. They’re going to be pumped up to play us again, and I think it’s going to be a fun game.”
Backcourt vs. Backcourt
West Virginia guards Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil combined to shoot just 5-of-20 from the floor, including 1-of-8 from 3-point range, in the first meeting with the Jayhawks. Those numbers led to a combined 15 points in just over 67 minutes of play and neither one was much of a factor in the game, including the first half.
There’s not a player or coach on either side of this one that believes that’s going to happen again in the rematch.
“I’d like to say we did a decent job on (Sherman) and McNeil,” said Self of West Virginia’s two leading scorers. “But it was probably a combination where we did a good job and they didn’t have their best games, as well.”
Entering that one, the two veteran WVU guards ranked in the top seven in the Big 12 in scoring, combining to score 35.5 points per game.
They’ve cooled off a little as the conference season has played out, but they’re still averaging 31.6 points per game combined and they’re still capable of going off on any given night.
Self and the Jayahwks are aware of that. And, as much as Self will need his top scorers to match the Mountaineers’ output, the bigger emphasis for Kansas — as always — will be on trying to make things hard for Sherman and McNeil with solid defense.
“The thing with those two is (you have to) limit their good, open looks and try to take away as many opportunities for them to get to the free throw line and for them to get to their spots,” Self said.
The KU coach acknowledged, though, that KU’s defense can’t approach it as an all-or-nothing proposition.
“If you do that, sometimes you play good defense and good scorers still score,” Self said.
The key then will be to keep the rest of the WVU lineup from providing the kind of offensive support that can help spring an upset.
For instance, in the first meeting, according to Self, WVU guard Malik Curry “went nuts on us,” to the tune of 23 points in 26 minutes on 6-of-13 shooting and an 11-of-11 effort at the free throw line.
With just six games to play in the regular season and Kansas holding a two-game edge in the loss column in the race for the Big 12 crown, the Jayhawks know that every win puts them that much closer to achieving their preseason goal of winning the Big 12 regular season title.
After ripping off an NCAA record stretch of 14 consecutive Big 12 titles, the Jayhawks have won just one of the three Big 12 titles that followed their record-setting effort in 2018.
Texas Tech and Kansas State tied for the title in 2019. KU was back on top in 2020. And Baylor won the conference in 2021. Year after year, streak or no streak, the Jayhawks always making winning the Big 12 one of their top goals.
“I just want to win a Big 12 championship,” Wilson said. “My freshman year we won, but I didn’t get to contribute the way I wanted to. That’s just been a goal of mine, especially knowing how much it means to coach and everyone around here.”
Heading into their first matchup with the Jayhawks, back in January, the Mountaineers had won 10 of 11 games and had the look of a typical tough Bob Huggins team.
Good guards. High-intensity defense. And a desire and willingness to fight for every inch on the floor.
For a half, WVU did exactly that, leading by eight at one point in the first half before heading to the locker room trailing by just two, 33-31, in what was shaping up to be another KU-WVU dog fight.
Then the second half happened and things have not quite been the same since. Not only did Kansas outscore West Virginia 52-28 in the second half of that 85-59 January win, but the Mountaineers also have gone just 1-9 in their 10 games since facing Kansas.
That record is a bit deceiving, though. WVU played Baylor within nine points and four points in a pair of games against the Bears since then and also lost by just seven to Texas Tech and by five on the road at K-State earlier this week.
“They’ve been right there to win games,” Self said on Thursday. “They could’ve easily won at Baylor. They could’ve won at K-State. There’s been more games that they could’ve won and just didn’t quite close the way they probably wanted to.”
Regarded in recent years as one of the Jayhawks’ top conference rivals, KU has won five of the last six meetings in the head-to-head series.
Kansas leads the all-time series 16-6, but the Jayhawks are just 3-6 in games played at WVU Coliseum. What’s more, the Mountaineers are no strangers to facing and beating highly ranked KU teams.
KU was ranked in all six of those six WVU wins over Kansas in Morgantown, with the Jayhawks being ranked in the top 10 five of the six times and in the top 5 twice.
“This is probably the hardest place for us to win in the league since they’ve been in league,” Self said. “I think we probably have the worst record against them as (anywhere). So we’re definitely approaching this as a must-win game for us and one in which we know we’ll have to play pretty well to do so.”
KenPom lists KU as a 6-point favorite in this one, with the Jayhawks carrying a 71% win probability. Oddsmakers in Las Vegas see Kansas as a 4.5-point road favorite when the lines first came out.
No. 6 Kansas
G – Dajuan Harris Jr., 6-1, 180, Soph.
G – Ochai Agbaji, 6-5, 210, Sr.
G – Christian Braun, 6-7, 205, Jr.
G – Jalen Wilson, 6-7, 205, Soph.
F – David McCormack, 6-10, 265, Sr.
G – Taz Sherman, 6-4, 190, Sr.
G – Sean McNeil, 6-3, 205, Sr.
G – Kedrian Johnson, 6-3, 185, Sr.
F – Jalen Bridges, 6-7, 225, Soph.
F – Isaiah Cottrell, 6-10, 245, RS-Fr.