14th-ranked West Virginia men’s basketball is shooting to take a win back from No. 11 Oklahoma when it hosts the Sooners on Saturday for a Big 12 Conference clash. The action tips off on Big 12 Now on ESPN+ at 1 p.m. ET.
This is an important matchup for both the conference standings and the national polls as both top-15 ranked opponents vie for a shot at Baylor for the top spot. Right now, the Mountaineers have an edge in second, but only slightly, as Oklahoma is a half-game behind.
The first meeting on Jan. 2 was painful for West Virginia as it made its first appearance on the court after the departure of Oscar Tshiebwe. Things weren’t very promising at first — the Mountaineers took an 18-point deficit to the locker room at halftime after making just 23 percent of their shots. Seemingly after getting some growing pains out, they stormed back in the second half to tie it up, but OU’s Umoja Gibson would nudge them back under with a career-high 29 points, including eight three-pointers.
Gibson is the epitome of what makes Oklahoma difficult to defend, as he is far from the marquee Sooner on the squad. Austin Reaves and De’Vion Harmon, who both scored double-digits against WVU, are the two leading scorers at a combined 28.3 points per game. Even deadlier is their clip from deep — although their combined three-point percentage isn’t much to write home about, five Sooners are making more than a third of their shots from downtown, including big man Brady Manek.
“[Coach] Lon [Kruger] has the luxury of putting a lot of guys out there who can shoot the ball, so I don’t know that you can say we’re definitely gonna guard this guy or that guy,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins. “I mean, for years, everybody talked about Manek being — everybody compared him to Larry Bird. They’ve got guys who can make shots, we’ve gotta do a great job of guarding our guy, don’t worry about the rest of them, let’s just guard the guy that we’re supposed to guard.”
Now more than a month since the last contest, WVU seems to have shaken off a lot of the growing pains since the New Year’s roster shakeup. With a new four-out, one-in offense, they’ve won five of their last six and discovered newfound shooting stroke.
“I personally enjoy [this style of offense] more, as an undersized guard it gives me a little bit more freedom to come off of ball screens and make reads, which is what I’ve been taught my whole life,” said point guard Jordan McCabe, who has seen a resurgence and spike in minutes since the change. “Same thing with Deuce [McBride], being the quarterback that he is, he sees the floor in similar ways.”
The change has even helped out the big men, like Gabe Osabuohien, who is a defensive specialist.
“It has kind of made things a little easier,” he said. “When I play at the five, I’m surrounded by four shooters….It makes my job easier just being able to space the floor.”
Still critical, however, is West Virginia’s inside play, and this was apparent in the first meeting. Derek Culver has had a strong stretch of games, averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds over the last five contests. Against Oklahoma, however, he finished with just two points and six boards, while staving off double teams and mind games from the Sooners.
Huggins says that Culver has not forgotten about that performance, and needless to say, he will be looking to make up for it in the home rematch.
“Believe me, Derek remembers,” he said. “I just talked to the television announcers who, by chance, had the first game, and they brought it up and the first ten minutes of the conversation was about just that. So, I think we’re all aware of what happened.”
The action gets underway on Saturday at 1 p.m. on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.