West Virginia basketball has been viewed as Kansas basketball’s toughest challenger to break their 13-year Big 12 conference title streak over the past four seasons. The Mountaineers have provided plenty of match-up problems for Kansas through their pressure full-court Press Virginia defense that have resulted in the Jayhawks losing four years in a row in Morgantown. On Monday, West Virginia looked well on their way to their fifth win in a row at home against Kansas, the first time the Jayhawks will have lost five games in a row to a Big 12 opponent since they did to Oklahoma from 1987-1991. However, Kansas had other ideas than letting the Mountaineers do that to their program.
Kansas, the number 10 ranked team in the country, roared back in a ferocious comeback to top sixth-ranked West Virginia 71-66 in really a heartbreaking defeat for the Mountaineers. West Virginia led by as much as 16 in the second half, including a nine-point lead with only nine minutes left in the game. Sophomore forward Sagaba Konate led the charge for West Virginia, scoring 16 points with 10 rebounds and five massive blocks that swung the momentum toward the Mountaineers early on. Senior guard Jevon Carter added 14 points along with junior forward Esa Ahmad scoring 15 points off the bench. Also, many were surprised to not see the Mountaineers’ freshman sensation forward Teddy Allen not play in the biggest game of the season after head coach Bob Huggins cited an attitude issue. The Jayhawks comeback was led by their two veteran seniors, guard Devonte Graham and forward Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, who had 16 and 17 points respectively to lead the way. Graham had 12 points in the second half, including a huge steal then and-one lay-up at the other end to cut the deficit to seven and forcing Carter to pick up his fourth foul. Mykhailiuk hit a couple of key three-pointers and free throws down the stretch to sink West Virginia in surprising fashion in Morgantown.
The Mountaineers have now suffered two tough losses in a row, after dropping a 72-71 thriller to eighth-ranked Texas Tech last Saturday in Lubbock. Kansas outscored West Virginia by 18 points in the second half after they trailed by 13 at halftime. Struggling to find consistency on offense late in games and being able to set up their pressure defense has been a big issue for West Virginia lately. The Mountaineers only put up 25 points in the second half on Monday after scoring 41 in the first. Not scoring enough baskets in the final minutes of the second half makes it so West Virginia must lay back into their half-court 1-3-1 or 2-3-2 zones that allow their opponents to either score in transition or find too many open looks beyond the arc. This allows teams to claw back into games the Mountaineers should be able to win. Turnovers were another crucial factor to losing the lead on Monday, with West Virginia committing 16 which ended up more than Kansas’ 13. The Mountaineers had a rough offensive night, turning over the ball too much and shooting too many contested three-pointers with stagnant offensive movement. West Virginia must be able to score at a good rate in order to set up their pressure defense as their opponent attempts to inbound the ball.
West Virginia must be able to find an offensive identity before they become dominant again on both ends of the floor. This team has so much potential at every position to make a deep run into the NCAA tournament and to contend for a Big 12 title. The return of Ahmad from his 16-game suspension may have juggled the rotation and flow a little bit, but that is no excuse for the Mountaineers blowing multiple double-digit leads the past two games. These struggles can be corrected with some better shot selections and movement to help Carter facilitate the scheme. Less three-point shots and getting to the basket to either draw fouls or finish the lay-up has to be a must for a team struggling to shoot the ball from the perimeter. The Mountaineers only shot 18 percent from three on Monday, which should have been a sign to take the ball to the hole. Carter, Daxter Miles Jr., and Lamont West are very good in the lane off the dribble. Konate, Ahmad, and Allen have all shown they can finish at the rim with or without contact. With better efficiency on offense, West Virginia’s pressure defense will get back to form causing turnovers and mishaps all over the floor again. Simplifying the offense may be the necessary move here for West Virginia to find easy baskets to get their confidence back up. Huggins has a lot of work to do to get his team back to how they were playing during their 15-game win streak. The Mountaineers get a few much needed days off before they are back in action in Morgantown on Saturday to take on a hot Texas team, who have won two of their last three games against ranked opponents.