No. 11 Kansas State and West Virginia have a lot on the line when they finish the Big 12 regular season Saturday afternoon in Morgantown.
The Wildcats (23-7, 11-6) can wrap up the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, while the Mountaineers (17-13, 6-11) can strengthen their push for an NCAA Tournament bid.
The two teams opened the Big 12 season with K-State’s 82-76 victory in Manhattan, Kan., on Dec. 31.
The Wildcats have won four straight games since hitting a lull in early February. They beat Oklahoma 85-69 on Wednesday night on the strength of a 28-8 run wrapped around halftime.
Not much was expected of K-State coming into the season. The Wildcats were picked 10th in the preseason poll and went 11-1 in the non-conference portion of the schedule, but there were few impressive wins in that mix.
When the Mountaineers arrived in Manhattan, they were the ranked team. K-State trailed No. 24 West Virginia by 11 at halftime but stormed back to send the game to overtime, where the Wildcats prevailed.
Markquis Nowell scored 21 of his game-high 23 points after halftime, coming three steals shy of the school’s first triple-double. He added 10 assists.
The Wildcats enter Saturday’s action in a three-way tie for second in the Big 12 with Baylor and Texas. The Wildcats split with Texas and swept Baylor, while the Longhorns and Bears split. If they all finish with the same record, K-State would own all tiebreakers.
The Wildcats have two of the top three scorers in the league with one game remaining. Keyontae Johnson is second with 17.6 points per game and Nowell is third at 16.8.
“It’s the habits that we created from Day One,” Nowell said about the team’s expectation to win, even when nobody else believed in them. “Just going 1-0, winning each day, doing everything possible to get better. And Coach (Jerome) Tang embodied that in us from the first time he stepped foot on campus.
“We just live by that each and every day. So now it’s a habit, we try to win everything that we do, win each game, win each media, win each day.”
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was perturbed to put it nicely after the first meeting between the teams this season. After blowing a lead, the Mountaineers still had a chance to get the win but fell short. Huggins said it was time for self-reflection.
“To tell the honest to God’s truth, we did some really, really stupid things that enabled them to cut the lead to get back in the game to make it a situation where they were a couple possessions from tying the score or taking the lead, whatever,” he said Dec. 31. “I don’t know how you can consistently miss one-footers, which we did. I don’t know how you can consistently miss free throws when they’re asked to make 100 before they leave practice. Make 100, not shoot 100. Make 100. Which obviously, they’ve cheated on. It catches up with you man. I think in any walk of life, the more you try to cheat it, the more it comes back to bite you in the ass.”
The Mountaineers appear to have enough bit to make the Big Dance, but a fourth win this season against a Top 25 team wouldn’t hurt.
Many bracketologists had them either out of the field or in one of the last at-large spots in the field prior to a huge 72-69 win at Iowa State on Monday. The Mountaineers trailed by seven points in the second half before rallying.
With two bigs on the injured list and another (Tre Mitchell) ejected with a flagrant-2 foul, Huggins went to a four-guard lineup. That worked.
“We went small and offensively that really helped us,” Huggins said. “I thought, defensively, we had some guys that really did a good job for us that really haven’t played as much as they probably need to. Kobe Johnson was terrific defensively. He got up on (Gabe) Kalscheur and when we went real small, he guarded their post guy. He’s got the strength to do it.”
West Virginia is 12-4 at home this season.
–Field Level Media