By Franklin Markel
West Virginia ended its 15 game winning streak and have since started a not so great streak.
The Mountaineers have lost three out of four games and have begun to fall in the polls. However, they’re still in the thick of things in the Big 12 race and can easily still make a run in march.
This week starts with a break from the Big 12, but not a break from tough competition. The Mountaineers face the Kentucky Wildcats in a Big 12/SEC Challenge game, then the Mountaineers travel to Ames, Iowa for a showdown with the Cyclones of Iowa State. This is how the week should go.
Kentucky Wildcats, Saturday January 17th 7:00 PM
For the first time in ages, Kentucky finds itself out of the Top 25. The Wildcats have a shot to get back in it with a showdown against the West Virginia Mountaineers in Morgantown.
Kentucky is point blank the youngest team in college basketball; it starts five freshman. Their inexperience has hurt them earlier in the season but it doesn’t mean they aren’t talented. The team’s leading scorer is Kevin Knox, a freshman who was a highly rated recruit and looks like a one and done. He scores 14.6 points per game on 45% shooting, but he is going to need to go above and beyond his average stats if Kentucky wants to win this game. The supporting cast for KU consists of Hamidou Diallo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and PJ Washington. Diallo, a 6’5 guard from Queens, is Kentucky’s second leading scorer, averaging 12.7 points per game. Forward PJ Washington from Dallas scores 11.3 points per game and is the last key piece of the KU offense.
Kentucky and West Virginia both struggle to shoot the ball well and this should be a low scoring game. The one major shooting difference is WVU’s dominance from the free throw line. On the other hand Kentucky is below average when it comes to free throws, they shoot 68% as a team which is 258th in the country. In his interview after the TCU game, Huggins said WVU just needs to make open shots and not take so many contested threes. After a week of Bob Huggins practice, this team should make those adjustments. This is a huge game for both teams and both Calipari and Huggins need the win, but Kentucky is too young for a home crowd aided Press Virginia. West Virginia wins a nailbiter.
Iowa State Cyclones, Wednesday January 31st 7:00 PM
Iowa State is off to a rough start in Big 12 play. They are 2-6 in the conference but they also just had a big win vs Texas Tech. The team’s leading scorer is freshman Lindell Wiggins. He averages 16.2 points per game and shoots 43% from three. The floor general for the Cyclones is senior Donovan Jackson who averages 15.5 points a game and shoots 42% from three. With Guard Nick Weiler-Babb and Forward Cameron Lard, the Cyclones have four players that average double digits.
WVU is definitely the more talented team but the one worry they should have is while stats-wise, ISU is below average, they are very good at not turning over the ball. They have the 25th least turnovers in the country. If Press Virginia can’t force the turnovers then they could be in trouble in Ames. This is a big worry, I think the home crowd and the experience of ISU can put WVU on upset watch. The Mountaineers might hit one of those infamous stretches where a basket seems impossible and that might be too much for West Virginia to overcome.
WVU should go 2-0, they should have no problem with both these teams, but this isn’t a should-league, it’s the best league in college basketball. The Mountaineers have to bring their all every night and we’ve seen them struggle in Big 12 play so far. Every game is a challenge and because of the recent struggle I don’t know if West Virginia is up to it night in and night out.