The warmup period is finished, and now the real competition begins as the West Virginia men’s basketball team opens Big 12 Conference play tonight against No. 11 Texas Tech, at WVU Coliseum. Despite a shaky showing in the early season, the Mountaineers (8-4) know that the important games are ahead of them. However, the mission to make the NCAA tournament starts with a grueling test against the Red Raiders (11-1).
WVU and Texas Tech split the season series last year, but both teams
Tech is led by sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, who averages nearly 20 points per game. His explosion this year has helped the Red Raiders outscore opponents by more than 20 points per game. Culver is also the leading assist man (52) and rebounder (67) for Tech.
The sophomore has had six 20-plus point nights this season and WVU will need to control his production.
Tariq Owens will be the player WVU must devote the most time to neutralizing. His 60 total rebounds lead the team. Though Tech hasn’t been as proficient on the glass as coach Chris Beard would like, Owens’ 6’10” frame is the type that has hurt Bob Huggins-coached teams in the past.
One player who will likely feast on WVU’s propensity for turnovers is Matt Mooney. The senior guard transferred to Tech from South Dakota this year and brought his thieving ways with him. Mooney leads the team with 26 steals. He is also Tech’s second-leading scorer, boasting a .406 three-point shooting percentage.
Davide Moretti is the fourth player who has started every game for Tech, averaging 8.4 points and 26.7 minutes. Though his production may not be noticeable on the scoresheet, the 6’2” guard from Italy provides plenty of drive for the Red Raiders.
Norense Odiase has started all but one game for Tech, but missed the game against UT Rio Grande Valley last Friday due to a hip injury. He is doubtful to play tonight.
For WVU, only Sagaba Konate will be questionable, as he continues to recover from a nagging knee injury.
Luckily for Huggins, Derek Culver is available and could start this game. Culver has 15 points in just 29 minutes this season, but projects to be a key offensive and defensive player for WVU. Specifically, his presence has been felt on the boards, as he has 12 total rebounds so far.
Esa Ahmad continues to pace WVU’s scoring, averaging 14.3 points and two assists per game. If anyone is going to give the Mountaineers the offensive spark to beat a stout Tech defense, it will be Ahmad, but he’s only produced more than 20 points twice this season.
James Bolden could prove to be the difference maker for WVU, as he seems to be the only Mountaineer capable of picking opponents’ pockets, with 12 steals on the season. Bolden has also contributed 11.5 points per game.
With Konate out, WVU will need Wesley Harris, Lamont West, Logan Routt and Culver to pick up the work on the glass. West has also been a steady offensive contributor for WVU, averaging 10.8 points per contest while starting four of the 12 games this season.
Chase Harler, one of two Mountaineers who have started every game, will need to take better care of the basketball. He has had a couple games where he turned the ball over multiple times, but Harler has been Huggins’ most reliable ball handler throughout the season.
ESPN BPI: Texas Tech by 59.1%
Even though WVU has looked utterly incompetent at times in November and December, Texas Tech is only a 4.5-point favorite by oddsmakers. This may be giving Bob Huggins too much credit, as his team has uncharacteristically surrendered nearly as many points per game as it scores this season. This has been a direct relation to the amount of turnovers the Mountaineers have committed. If the Mountaineers want to make a statement to start conference play, they must not turn the ball over more than 15 times (the current season average).
Texas Tech comes into the game just one game removed from a hard loss to then-No. 2 Duke. In that game, the Red Raiders were held to just 58 points, mainly due to 24 turnovers of their own—that was nine more than they average on the season. WVU must find ways to limit Tech’s scoring opportunities, be it on the defensive glass or causing turnovers, to compete in this game.