Locked in a tie with Kansas at the top of the Big 12 standings, the No. 10 West Virginia University men’s basketball team knows that every game counts — especially tonight.
On Jan. 20, the Mountaineers (20-5, 9-3 Big 12) turned in perhaps their worst team performance of the season so far, in a languid 56-49 loss at home to Texas. Tonight, West Virginia will be hunting for revenge, as the Mountaineers head south to Austin, Texas to face the No. 24 Longhorns (16-9, 7-5), who have since surged into the nation’s top 25.
Last month’s matchup in Morgantown was a massive letdown for West Virginia, which was coming off a court-storming win over No. 1 Kansas and a last-second loss to No. 2 Oklahoma. Then-unranked Texas seemed like a probable win, but the Mountaineers only forced eight turnovers and shot 31 percent from the field in a dismal effort that left head coach Bob Huggins questioning his team’s attitude and desire.
“We weren’t mentally into what we were doing,” Huggins said after that game. “I had to stop practice yesterday because it wasn’t going to help any. We weren’t doing anything other than creating more bad habits. We weren’t into it.”
But despite the bad memory of that loss — and the knowledge of how well Texas dealt with West Virginia’s defensive pressure —Huggins said Monday that he has no plans to change anything about the way his team plays ahead of tonight’s rematch.
“We are what we are, and we’re committed to the way we play,” Huggins said. “I don’t think you can change things in history. Our guys are conditioned to do what we do.”
The task is clear for the Mountaineers, but it may be complicated by a key absence. Jonathan Holton’s return from suspension meant that West Virginia had its full complement of players for one game — a blowout win over TCU on Saturday — but they may go back down a man against Texas after starting guard Daxter Miles Jr. was carried off with an apparent leg injury in the late stages of the TCU game.
Miles, who has been notably inconsistent in Big 12 play, finished with three points in 15 minutes against TCU. Miles missed practice on Sunday, and Huggins’ policy of not playing players who don’t practice means that the sophomore could miss his second game of the season — he also didn’t play on Jan. 9 against Oklahoma State due to a sprained ankle.
On that day, senior Jaysean Paige stepped into the starting lineup and scored nine points on 2-10 shooting as West Virginia won 77-60. Paige, West Virginia’s leading scorer this season, remains the probable candidate to start tonight if Miles doesn’t play, but he has been much more comfortable coming off the bench this season.
Meanwhile, former VCU head coach Shaka Smart has succeeded in bringing his style of intense, frenetic basketball to Texas, and the Longhorns have emerged as a threat in a crowded Big 12.
Texas has gone 3-3 in the Big 12 since beating West Virginia, with three losses coming at perhaps the three toughest places to play in the conference: Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa State.
A buzzer-beating Buddy Hield 3-pointer was all that separated Texas and No. 3 Oklahoma last week, and Texas was unable to stop Iowa State’s star duo of Monte Morris and Georges Niang (48 combined points) on Saturday in Ames.
But while star guard Isaiah Taylor and the Longhorns have lost two straight and they’re still only two games behind first place with four of their last six coming at home–and Smart’s performance in his first season as Texas coach is garnering praise.
“He did what everybody thought he’d do,” Huggins said. “He brings his brand of basketball like everyone else in our league. Shaka has done a great job selling the brand of basketball he wants to play.”
The West Virginia-Texas game is set for 7 p.m. tonight at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas. The game will be televised live on ESPN2.