MORGANTOWN — Saturday’s sold-out Coliseum crowd will pack West Virginia’s home arena hoping to see what Mountaineer Nation has seen six times previously: WVU knocking off a nationally ranked Kansas team.
West Virginia (10-4, 0-2 Big 12) has struggled in multiple key areas through the first two games of conference play, most notably turnovers and success at the free throw line.
“I think it comes down to some guys’ integrity, you know. Whether or not you make 100 shots before you leave the gym is up to you,” senior forward Tre Mitchell said after the loss to Oklahoma State, citing a Huggins requirement of each player to make 100 free throws before leaving the gym after practice. He later added, “Regardless of turnovers, and missed rotations, it’s called a free throw for a reason, and that’s a crucial piece of the game.”
Enter No. 3 Kansas.
Despite being arguably the best team in the league through the first 14 games of the year, the Jayhawks (13-1, 2-0 Big 12) have one glaring weakness in their game. KU also struggles at the so-called charity stripe.
Kansas is one of just two teams in the Big 12 with a free throw shooting percentage worse than West Virginia. KU makes just 68.6 percent of its free throws, while WVU makes 70.3 percent of its attempts at the line.
Huggins’ team does consist of four players shooting 80 percent or better, and six players shooting 75 percent or better, from the stripe this season. But it also consists of four players shooting 50 percent or worse.
The Bear hinted that lineup changes could be coming following the loss in Stillwater, with free throws being one of the motivating factors.
Bill Self’s team, meanwhile, is home to just four players shooting free throws at better than a 70 percent success rate. None of the players on Self’s roster have a free throw percentage in the 80s.
Jayhawks leading scorer Jalen Wilson has gotten to the line more often than any other player who will step on the court Saturday. He’s taken 73 free throws, making 54 of them. Veteran point guard Kedrian Johnson paces West Virginia with 65 attempts and 52 makes at the stripe.
While the two team’s success rates at the charity stripe have been similar, that’s where the similarities stop.
No team in the Big 12 Conference gets to the free-throw line more often than West Virginia. In fact, WVU is averaging the 20th-most free throw attempts per game (23.4) in the country.
The Jayhawks have attempted 127 fewer shots at the line than the Mountaineers. Despite having a lower shooting percentage, Kansas is actually missing fewer shots. On average, Self’s crew leaves 4.6 points per game at the line per game. Huggins’ squad, on the other hand, misses just under seven free throws per contest.
Both of WVU’s most recent losses have come by seven or fewer points.
“We make five or six more free throws, we win that game,” said Mitchell. “It’s insane that that is an area we’re struggling in right now.”
History shows that one ingredient to West Virginia beating Kansas is winning the free throw battle. The Mountaineers have done that in four of their six all-time wins against the Jayhawks, including in 2016 when West Virginia took an astounding 47 free throw attempts, and made 33, in the 74-63 victory.