West Virginia is a much different team now than it was the last time it faced Oklahoma.
When the Mountaineers visited the Sooners on Jan. 2, West Virginia’s roster was in flux, with Oscar Tshiebwe, one of the highest-rated prospects ever signed by the Mountaineers, stepping away from the team in the days before that game.
Tshiebwe’s absence, and his ultimate decision to transfer to Kentucky, left Bob Huggins to retool the direction of his team.
After a rough start without Tshiebwe, which included a 75-71 loss to then-unranked Oklahoma, the Mountaineers have turned things around.
Heading into Saturday’s game in Morgantown, W.Va., against the No. 12 Sooners, No. 14 West Virginia has won three consecutive games — the last two against ranked opponents — and five of its last six.
“I think first and foremost, we’ve got a great bunch of guys,” Huggins said of the key to turning the season back around. “We got a great bunch of guys who really care about each other and really support each other, and I think that’s really important.”
And West Virginia has gone in a different direction than most of the other Mountaineers teams under Huggins over the last 14 seasons. The Mountaineers are largely using a four-guard lineup, going small as they moved forward without the 6-foot-9 Tshiebwe.
Earlier this season, Oklahoma became just the third team since the Top 25 poll began more than 70 years ago to beat four top-10 opponents in one month. That slate of victories includes that win over the Mountaineers, who were ranked No. 9 at the time.
Now, West Virginia is looking to make its own history.
The Mountaineers have beaten then-No. 23 Kansas and won at No. 7 Texas Tech over the last week for consecutive wins over ranked teams for the first time since the 2004-05 season.
While West Virginia has retooled since the teams last met, so has Oklahoma.
Shortly after that game, the Sooners’ Brady Manek and Jalen Hill — two of the only forwards on Oklahoma’s roster — were held out due to COVID-19 protocols, forcing Sooners coach Lon Kruger to make adjustments of his own.
That led to moving Elijah Harkless into a four-guard starting lineup, where Harkless has thrived, first as a defensive stopper and lately as a bigger part of Oklahoma’s offense.
Harkless is coming off a season-high 19 points in last Saturday’s win over Iowa State where Kruger went to Harkless on three consecutive possessions in the closing minutes and Harkless converted every time to help the Sooners avoid an upset.
Manek’s role has also evolved since that game.
While he was one of Oklahoma’s top offensive weapons early, Manek’s offense has taken a bit of a backseat. He’s coming off a career-high 15 rebounds and a career-high tying four assists in the win over the Cyclones.
“To Brady’s credit, he’s recognized how he can be most effective in getting production and helping the team,” Kruger said.
–Field Level Media