The Big 12 is an absolute monster this year, with 6 teams legitimately vying for the conference crown, and no hope of an off night out on the road. The surprise conference leader comes to town tonight to face the Kansas Jayhawks, and we reached out once again to Matthew Kirchner over at The Smoking Musket, the SB Nation site that covers the West Virginia Mountaineers. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
RCT: As of course everyone knows by now, West Virginia comes into the game tonight with the lead in the conference race. If I had told you coming into the year that West Virginia would be ahead, even briefly, after February 1st, would you have believed me? And how great does it feel to be playing in the top tier of this Big 12 conference?
TSM: God, no. I knew that this team would be talented, deep, and would compete to finish in the top 4 of this league.
But win the damn thing? Didn't cross my mind. I felt that we lacked a true game changing difference maker (and to an extent, that's still true) but this group has truly exceeded my expectations. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts here and it has been fantastic to watch this team grow.
RCT: Since it's still somewhat fresh on everyone's mind, let's talk about the Big 12-SEC Challenge. First, what are your thoughts on the challenge as a whole, especially the timing? I know that if you have to lose, a non-conference loss is better than taking a step back in the conference race, but what the hell happened against Florida?
TSM: Florida was one of those perfect storm games where everything is stupid and you just have to run with it. When the 291st ranked three point shooting team in the country decides to nail everything they toss up, you just go with it. And like you said, it's not a league loss and we bounced back.
As for the general idea of the challenge, I love it. I think it's a ton of fun. But god I hate leaving league play in the middle of January (this comes from deep seated hatred of the WV state legislature forcing the WVU-Marshall game to be in January) and I really hope that changes.
RCT: It appears that the Mountaineers won't be at full strength against the Jayhawks, with the news that Jon Holton will most likely still be suspended. How does that affect their gameplanning, and how big of a loss is that for West Virginia?
TSM: The Holton situation is extremely frustrating and puts a ton of strain on what WVU wants to do with this Press Virginia thing. He is the heart and soul of our press.
We are extremely deep, and Nate Adrian and freshman Esa Ahmad have played some of their best ball of the season in response to the suspension, but neither of them provide the athleticism of Holton. We've done well so far but if this suspension looms much longer, it will hurt.
RCT: Which matchup is going to be the biggest in deciding tonight's game? Any players you see being the surprise hero/goat for their respective teams?
TSM: I'm gonna go with Devin Williams versus inevitable foul trouble. Dev has snapped himself out of his early conference play slump by having a monster 17 and 18 game in Ames and finally besting the Rico Gathers puzzle in our last outing.
His scoring and rebounding is extremely important and we really can't have one of those nights where he picks up two in a minute and a half.
RCT: It's prediction time! How do you see tonight's game going? Can West Virginia defend their lead in the conference by picking up a big road win? Will they be the first team to sweep Kansas in a home-and-home series since Iowa State back in the 2000-2001 season?
TSM: I want to say we win.
I want to believe we'll win.
I don't particularly think we'll win at the Phog.
But I'll say we win if only because these guys just keep proving me wrong. 74-70 WVU.
RCT: Bonus - Pizza or Lasagna?
TSM: My fiance makes a mad awesome lasagna so I'm going with that.
A big thanks to our guest today. Unfortunately we weren't able to do any return questions, but you can check out all their coverage of tonight's game over at The Smoking Musket.