MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - One of the things we’re learning about the Big 12 this season is the value of having confident, assertive play makers taking care of the basketball at the end of games.
We saw how important that was on Monday night when West Virginia was unable to hold on to a 14-point lead at Kansas with three minutes remaining. The Mountaineers (20-6, 8-5) committed four critical turnovers in the final minute of regulation to blow a seven-point lead, enabling the Jayhawks to seize the game in overtime.
Tight games have become a hallmark of the Big 12 this year, with 47 of the 65 conference games so far decided by 10 points or less.
Just this week, four out of the five games played through Wednesday were determined by six points or less, the widest margin of victory being Texas Tech’s impressive 84-78 home victory over fourth-ranked Baylor on Monday night.
Of course, Kansas came back to nip West Virginia, 84-80, in overtime, Oklahoma slipped past Texas by four and Oklahoma State outlasted TCU by three points.
The only game this week not determined by two possessions was Iowa State’s 87-79 victory over Kansas State.
During this morning’s Big 12 coaches’ teleconference, Texas Tech coach Chris Beard was asked how he prepares his team for these tight, end-of-game situations everyone seems to be encountering in conference play this season.
“In practice, I’ve probably worked late-game situations with this team more than any team I’ve ever coached over the years,” he said. “We try and play two and three-minute games a couple times a week to try and be prepared for these moments, whether it be scripting exactly what we’re doing on defense or talking about exactly who we want to have the ball where on offense.”
According to Beard, a team’s success in tight-game situations ultimately comes down to the number of quality players it has on the floor. In other words, planning and preparation can only get you so far.
“The answer is you’ve got to have really good players at each position,” he said. “It seems to me these games come down to somebody making a play. I tell our guys all the time, ‘The other team is not going to lose so if you want this game you have to go get it. Go make the play.’
“Who makes plays in this league? Obviously, the best players. It seems like I watch a close game, whether it’s us or watching another team on TV, it’s a player making a play. In our game against Kansas, one of the plays that kind of went unnoticed was when we had a clean look at the basket by (Niem) Stevenson with under two minutes left and their guard (Devonte’) Graham comes from the other side of the floor and blocks a shot above the rim.
“It wasn’t necessarily what Niem did wrong but what Graham did great,” Beard said. “What we have to continue to do is recruit talented players, develop them and put ourselves in situations at the end of games where we have some of the best players on the floor.”
Texas Tech has been in a number of tight games so far this year, including four of its last five. The Red Raiders lost by four at Texas, lost by one at TCU, lost by one at home against Kansas and most recently, defeated Baylor by six on Monday night.
Tech is now 6-7 in games decided by seven points or less.
West Virginia, on the other hand, is only 2-6 this year in games decided by the same margin.
One of those six defeats came earlier this season in Lubbock when the Red Raiders hit a 3-pointer at the end in overtime to win, 77-76, back on January 3.
The two teams will hook up once again on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. in Morgantown.
Beard said the most important thing his team did the first time around in Lubbock was take care of the basketball.
“We played an overtime game so we played 45 minutes of basketball and had a low turnover number - I think it was (13) turnovers for the game and a couple of those were dead-ball turnovers. That gave us a chance to get some shots up.
“We battled on the boards pretty good. I think that West Virginia’s identity is obviously their press, but also their rebounding. They are very physical. They rebound from basically four out of five spots every time a shot goes up, so those are two things we did that gave us a chance. Then we were on the fortunate side of that game - another typical one-possession game in the Big 12. We made one more play than they did.”
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, on the teleconference prior to Beard, said he is very impressed with the Red Raiders, now 17-9 and moving closer toward the safe side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
“I think them and Oklahoma State are playing as well as anyone in the league,” Huggins said. “They are on a heck of a roll.
“They run good offense - kind of Coach (Bob) Knight’s old motion offense - and they play really hard,” he added. “They play very physical; they play the game the right way.”
Saturday’s rematch will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
* The Texas Tech game has already been announced a sellout, making it the fifth time in the last seven games this season. The Mountaineers are currently averaging 11,040 in 15 home dates so far this year with games remaining on Monday night against Texas and the Friday, March 3 regular season finale against Iowa State.
There are still plenty of tickets remaining for the Texas game while there are less than 1,000 tickets left for the Iowa State contest.
The 2010 Mountaineers set the Coliseum record for average attendance, averaging 12,377 for their 14 home dates that year.
This year will be the seventh time since Bob Huggins’ return that West Virginia has averaged at least 10,000 per game at home.
* Huggins said Thursday he gave his team two days off following Monday night’s heartbreaking 84-80 loss at Kansas to kind of recharge their batteries.
“I kind of wanted them to retool themselves for the stretch run here,” he said.
Huggins was asked about his team’s resiliency and ability to bounce back after such a tough loss on Monday night at Kansas with key league games coming up down the stretch against the Red Raiders on Saturday, followed by a quick turnaround with Monday night’s game against Texas.
After that, WVU has back-to-back road games at TCU and Baylor on Saturday-Monday before wrapping up the regular season at home against Iowa State on Friday, March 3.
“At times they’re not as resilient as you think they should be. Sometimes they are - most of the time they are, I would say,” Huggins said.
* Texas Tech is coming to Morgantown this weekend a confident basketball team after the way it performed in its last two games against Kansas and Baylor.
The Red Raiders were one possession away from sweeping games against the top two teams in the league.
“Our deal is to just to continue to play one game at a time,” Beard said. “We’ve played a lot of good basketball and a lot of good games and fortunately for us, the Baylor game we were on the other side of the coin with a win, but we’ve been playing good basketball for the past three weeks now. I think the correlation between one game to the next is to continue to stay the course and to continue to play the game on our terms.”
Beard was asked if there were any common threads between the recent win against Baylor, and the overtime victory against West Virginia earlier this season.
“I think the team that wins the rebounding battle normally has a great chance of victory. In the Big 12, it seems to me the more aggressive team has the advantage and the team that gets to the free throw line more,” he noted. “These are common things not only with our team, but I think every coach in the league would agree with.
“With us specifically, we’re a team that has to value each possession. In the games when we’ve played low turnover we’ve had a chance to win and when we turn the ball over too much it’s very difficult for us, of course,” he added.
* Finally, on Saturday, West Virginia will face one of the most improved backcourts in the country in Keenan Evans, Devon Thomas and the emerging Niem Stevenson, a two-time junior college All-American.
Evans has posted 14 straight double-figure scoring games and has shot 50 percent or better from the field 14 times so far this year.
Stevenson started his fourth straight game against Baylor and scored 21 points. He has produced 43 points and 16 rebounds in his last two games against Kansas and Baylor, and his size (6-feet-5, 205 pounds) will provide matchup difficulties for the Mountaineers on Saturday.
“We’re getting good backcourt play,” Beard said. “Keenan Evans, I think, has established himself as one of the better backcourt players in our conference. I knew the potential was there but it’s nice to see it develop.
“Niem Stevenson was a two-time junior college All-American so it’s never been a question about his talent. He was recruited at a high level, but similar to a lot of transfers, it just takes some time to adjust to this level. You can tell guys all you want about the Big 12 and try and explain it to them but until you get out there and really taste it yourself and see it’s really hard to simulate,” Beard said.
“We’ve gotten some good minutes, too, from Devon Thomas, our senior point guard.”