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KU Hoops Preview: West Virginia

Hopefully this will be one of KU's easier trips to Morgantown

NCAA Basketball: West Virginia at Oklahoma Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Over the years, Bob Huggins and the rowdy Morgantown crowds have made games at West Virginia some of the toughest Big 12 games of the last decade. But now, whether Bob Huggins agrees or not, he’s no longer the head coach at West Virginia, and the team is struggling a bit in their first year without him. Josh Eilert, originally from Osborne, KS, played at K-State and was an administrator at West Virginia for years before spending two years as an assistant under Huggins, and was given the interim coach tag after the Bob Huggins offseason fiasco. It’s important to note that he still has the “interim” tag, because he’s unlikely to keep coaching if things don’t improve.

West Virginia enters Saturday’s game as the worst team in the Big 12, per the KenPom ratings, 26 spots below the 2nd worst team in Oklahoma State, who Kansas steamrolled Tuesday night. The Mountaineers, according to KenPom, have the nation’s 194th ranked offense and 112th ranked defense. They did pull off a win over a struggling Texas team last Saturday, but they sit at 1-3 in league play, with an overall scoring margin of -59 in just four games played, with all three losses coming by double digits, including a home game against Kansas State. Make no mistake, this West Virginia team is not good, but in case you’ve moved on from the UCF loss, the Mountaineers’ win over Texas last week should remind you that no road game in the Big 12 is truly easy.

It’s also worth noting that looking at season-long stats won’t tell the full story of this time. Senior transfer RaeQuan Battle initially wasn’t cleared to play this year, and has only played in West Virginia’s last seven games. He leads the team in per game scoring at 19. Arizona transfer Kerr Kriisa also sat the first part of the season due to suspension, and has only played in the team’s last 8 games, and is the team leader in assist rate and has shot 36.2% from three while putting up over six attempts per contest. These are arguably their two best players, and West Virgnia is a better team today than they were just a month ago.

With that said, they still aren’t a great team. It’s just tough to contextualize full-season numbers when two of their most important players didn’t see the court until the team was already 4-6. Looking at their numbers in Big 12 play alone, KenPom shows them as both 13th rated offense and defense. Teams have an absurd 57% eFG% against them in those four games, and they’ve failed to grab rebounds on either side of the court. They turn the ball over too much and haven’t shot well enough from two or three to make up for the empty possessions and lack of offensive boards. Looking at the Four Factors, the only areas where they’ve been successful are getting to the line frequently, where they’ve hit 72% of their free throws, and...oh no...forcing turnovers. For the whole season, the Mountaineers have actually not forced many turnovers at all, but in their four Big 12 contests, they’ve done it on 21.2% of their defensive possessions, good for 2nd in the conference. They’ve taken 43% of their shots from three point range, thanks largely to Battle and Kriisa joining the team, but they’ve shot an abysmal 30.2% so far. That number is nearly identical to their 3P% in their non-con slate, so there’s no guarantee that it’s an anomaly.

Prediction

KenPom has Kansas winning this road game by 11. As of publishing time, no line has been released, but it’s likely to be a number only slightly lower than that. There should be no doubt that Kansas is the better team here, but although KU has looked much better in the two games since their UCF loss, West Virginia has shown they can win against solid competition in Morgantown, and nothing can be taken for granted in Big 12 road games.

For that reason, I am picking West Virginia to beat what I imagine the spread to be, but I can’t go so far as pick them to upset the Jayhawks. Kansas already got surprised by a lower-level Big 12 squad on the road once, so I don’t think they’ll be taking anything for granted. Furphy as a starter playing more minutes looks like it could be a difference-making decision, but we’re only two games into the lineup change. With West Virginia racking up a lot of forced turnovers in the last two games, it could be a test for KU’s recent improvement in coughing up the ball. I expect the crowd to still get up for this game and create a raucous environment, and while the Mountaineers haven’t shot well from three as a team, they have a few players who can get hot and change the complexion of the game if one or more start cooking. I like Kansas to win, but in a game where they never quite pull away.

Kansas 78, West Virginia 70