SCOUTING THE LONGHORNS
Texas has been up and down this year, with wins over North Carolina and Mississippi State being more than offset by losses to Chaminade and USC. An extremely young team, Texas is hoping to improve as the season progresses. Seven freshmen and five sophomores make up the majority of UT's roster, and account for nearly all of the available playing time.
Like WVU, the Longhorns started off the Big 12 season with a loss (Baylor) and need a win to avoid a spot in the Big 12 cellar early in the season.
The scoring-challenged 'Horns get much of their productivity from the backcourt. The three-guard set of Sheldon McClellan, Julien Lewis and Javan Felix combines for 37 points per game and presents some match-up issues for the opposition. McClellan (Soph., 6-4) launches more shots than any teammate, which allows him to tally 15.6 points per game despite shooting just 37% from the field. Lewis (Soph., 6-4) is a solid three point shooter (42%) who's much more efficient with his offensive game, averaging almost 12 per contest while shooting fewer than ten times per outing. Felix (Fr., 5-10) is the ballhandler of the group, dealing out 93 assists against 49 turnovers. He gets to the basket for most of his 9.6 points per game, and isn't an outside threat to worry about.
Up front Jonathan Holmes (Soph., 6-7) and Cameron Ridley (Fr., 6-9) are expected to get starts. Holmes is scoring 7.2 points and getting 7.6 rebounds per game, while Ridley is adding 5.5 and 5.4, respectively. Both are also excellent defenders, and are anchors of the team's excellent defensive rankings. They have combined for 42 blocked shots, and affect just about any shooter that ventures close to the basket.
The duo is backstopped by Ioannis Papapetrou, who not only adds 6.7 points and 4.2 rebounds to the mix, but also has double-digit blocked shots in fewer than 20 minutes of action per game. Papapetrou (Fr., 6-8) has started several games this season, and can fill either that role or a supporting one off the bench. Connor Lammert (Fr., 6-9) has also shown early promise, adding 3.6 points and 4.5 rebounds off the bench. Jaylen Bond and Prince Ibeh round out the bench brigrade, providing rebounding (Bond, 4.0 per game) and even more defensive strength (Ibeh, 20 blocked shots).
DeMarcus Holland is the primary sub in the backcourt, hitting the occasional shot and rotating to give the other guards brief rests.
Overall, Texas can send waves of fresh defenders at opponents, and makes scoring very difficult. Although UT tallies an average of just 65 points, it makes up for that with sticky defense, a decent rebounding advantage and good positioning that yields few open shots to opponents.
West Virginia doesn't shoot well. UT leads the nation in both field goal percetange defensive rankings. Is there any way for WVU to overcome that handicap?
Although it has shown no reason to think the following with confidence, West Virginia could win this game. To do so, it will have to drive the ball and force Texas to foul -- something that the 'Horns have done on occasion this season. UT doesn't yield many open shots, which leads to the conclusion that they don't leave their defensive assignments when opposing players can get into the lane. Of course, they also do a good job at stopping those drives in the first place, but West Virginia will have to get some penetration and convert scoring chances, especially if defensive help isn't given when the ball is pushed deep into the lane. Juwan Staten will be key here, but WVU will also need to get support in that from Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne.
WVU 7-6 0-1
UT 8-6, 0-1
WVU - 115
UT - 126
It also looks like a mismatch inside, as West Virginia's limited post brigade will be faced by five players of differing strengths. Texas' front line might not put up a huge scoring advantage over its WVU foes, but its defensive output and active rebounding and shot blocking figure to be strengths that West Virginia will be hard pressed to match.
Coming on the heels of the Oklahoma home loss, this is a game that West Virginia must have. Whether the players realize it, or care about it, is another matter entirely. WVU would have to go 13-5 the rest of the regular season just to get to 20 wins, and that is by no means any sort of lock for an NCAA bid. While the players might run down the schedule and see that many victories, the team's results to date would suggest something more on the order of 6-12. If there's going to be any sort of meaningful turnaround, it has to start now -- anything else will be too late.
Texas, too likely knows that this is an early must game. UT hasn't last at home yet, but has won only once away from campus, so it knows that protecting the home hardwood is vital. Which team will play with the urgency required to capture its first Big 12 win of the year? To date, the Longhorns have at least shown the ability to play well against solid opponents, and that experience could be the difference in WVU's first foray onto the Big 12 road trail.
All three previous meetings in the series have been decided by three points or less, including two buzzer-beating wins by the Longhorns in the 2005-06 season. The latter of those knocked West Virginia from the NCAA tournament and ended the careers of Joe Herber, Mike Gansey, J.D. Collins, Kevin Pittsnogle and Patrick Belien -- a quintet that we remember fondly.
All three games in the series have come at neutral sites, including Portland, Ore., Kansas City, Mo. and Atlanta, Ga.
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Texas is 429-98 (.814) at the Erwin Center, and has won its last 14 home Big 12 openers in a row at the facility.
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Texas' best recruit in this year's class, Myck Kabongo, is serving a 23 game NCAA suspension for improper benefits and giving false information. He will not be eligible until UT faces Iowa State on Feb. 13.
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West Virginia has topped the 40% shooting mark from the field just three times in the past eight games, and only six times overall this season.