The West Virginia University men’s basketball team has a tall task in front of it Saturday — win on the road at Baylor, the No. 1-ranked team in the country.
Winning against a top-ranked Bears team would not be unprecedented for the Mountaineers, but Saturday’s game (4 p.m. streaming only on ESPN+) presents a particularly bad matchup for WVU. Baylor is one of the best defensive teams in the country while West Virginia has struggled mightily on offense.
The No. 14 Mountaineers (18-6, 6-5 Big 12) do not, however, need to be reminded just how important Saturday’s game is. West Virginia has lost consecutive games for the first time this season and could face a battle down the stretch for Big 12 and NCAA tournament seeding.
West Virginia sits at No. 10 in the NCAA NET rankings — one of the main tools used by the selection committee to help determine seeding — while Baylor is at No. 3 behind Gonzaga and No. 1 San Diego State. Oh, and Baylor has won its last 21 games.
Saturday’s game is a big one, to say the least.
“They understand where they are,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said of his team. “They have it on the board in the film room — they’ve got where everybody’s NET is. They’ve got our NET, they’ve got the opposition’s NET. They did that themselves, and they did that from the beginning. They’ve got a pretty good handle on it.”
Under longtime coach Scott Drew, Baylor (22-1, 11-0 Big 12) has become known for having one of the best zone defenses in the country. That, however, has not been the case this season as the Bears have used more man-to-man defense and been very good at it.
“Defensively, I think they do a terrific job,” Huggins said. “This is far and away the best man-to-man defensive team that we have seen all year.”
West Virginia is no slouch on the defensive end of the court either. The Mountaineers rank second in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, while Baylor is not far behind at No. 4. In the three games the Mountaineers and Bears have combined to play against Kansas — the Big 12’s undeniable blue blood program — the Jayhawks have yet to hit 60 points.
Both teams, however, have had their problems when it comes to putting the basketball through the hoop. Baylor was able to win despite that when it took on Kansas, while West Virginia went cold late and blew second-half leads in both of its games against the Jayhawks.
WVU ranks in the 300s in both 3-point and foul shooting percentage. Baylor has only shot better than 45.2 percent from the field in one of its last 12 games.
Still, the Bears have been the team to bring stability to the top of the Associated Press rankings this season, but how they got there was unexpected. BU suspended standout Mario Kegler — a player with a name for Morgantown if there ever was one — in September, which resulted in Kegler opting to pursue his professional options and give up his remaining collegiate eligibility. Tristan Clark, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, was a preseason All-Big 12 pick but has struggled in his return from knee surgery this season. Other players — guards Mark Vital, Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague along with forward Freddie Gillespie — have picked up the slack and turned the Bears into a powerhouse.
“From the outside, sometimes less is more,” Huggins said. “I think that’s happened to all of us at some point and time in our careers — you lose a a couple of guys and think, “oh my goodness,” then a couple of other guys step up.
“You see it happen — teams lose star players, then the ‘whole’ becomes better.”