Preview: Big 12 grind continues in Morgantown as KU challenges WVU

Kansas center Hunter Dickinson (1) and forward K.J. Adams Jr. (24) celebrate on the sideline in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma State, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, Stillwater, Okla. (AP Photo/Mitch Alcala)

As Kansas coach Bill Self learned during his postgame press conference Tuesday following a road win at Oklahoma State, Stillwater has not been the toughest conference road destination of his KU career from a statistical standpoint.

In fact, a few degrees worse than KU’s prior 9-8 mark in Stillwater under Self — now 10-8, after Tuesday’s dominant 90-66 victory — is its 4-6 performance in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Albeit in a smaller sample size, the Jayhawks experienced protracted struggles at WVU Coliseum after the Mountaineers first joined the Big 12 Conference back in 2012. At one point they lost there five straight times from 2014 to 2019.

This year’s West Virginia squad is different, of course, just as the winless OSU squad KU just dispatched bears little resemblance to some of the Cowboys’ most potent teams in recent years. But while Oklahoma State was and remains winless in Big 12 play, interim head coach Josh Eilert’s Mountaineers already have a defining moment under their belt this January.

WVU embarked on 10-2 and 11-3 runs in the second half against then-No. 25 Texas last Saturday in Morgantown to build and bolster a lead. Senior forward Patrick Suemnick tallied a career-high 16 points and the Mountaineers staved off twice as many from Texas’ dynamic guard Max Abmas to beat the Longhorns 76-73.

Suemnick’s emergence typified what has been a bit of a touch-and-go lineup situation for WVU in its first year without former coach Bob Huggins since 2006-07, as 11 players have started at least three games and averaged at least 14 minutes.

“It’s hard to gauge, in large part because they haven’t had their full cast of guys, and certainly when they do have all their players they’ll be very formidable for anybody,” Self said Thursday.

Estonian point guard Kerr Kriisa, an Arizona transfer, had to serve a nine-game suspension after accepting impermissible benefits. RaeQuan Battle and Noah Farrakhan won their eligibility in court, as two-time transfers who were previously not allowed to play; Battle opened his WVU account with back-to-back 29-point performances and is averaging 19.0. Former Syracuse center Jesse Edwards broke his wrist a month ago; Self said when Edwards is healthy he might be a “legitimate top-five big man in the country.”

The biggest constant throughout has been forward Quinn Slazinski, who averages 14.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. The last time the Mountaineers took to the court — for a 77-63 loss at Oklahoma on Wednesday — Slazinski came off the bench as Eilert started Battle, Kriisa, Suemnick, Josiah Harris and Kobe Johnson.

photo by: AP Photo/Kyle Phillips

West Virginia guard RaeQuan Battle (21) shoots over Oklahoma guard Milos Uzan (12) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Norman, Okla.

photo by: AP Photo/Kathleen Batten

West Virginia forward Quinn Slazinski (11) shoots against Texas during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, in Morgantown, W.Va.

photo by: AP Photo/Kyle Phillips

West Virginia guard Kerr Kriisa (3) is defended by Oklahoma guard Javian McCollum (2) and others during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Norman, Okla.

photo by: AP Photo/Kyle Phillips

West Virginia forward Patrick Suemnick, left, drives past Oklahoma forward John Hugley IV during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Norman, Okla.

Most combinations haven’t worked for WVU, which has the worst overall record in the league at 6-11. The Mountaineers have lost at home to the likes of Monmouth and Radford.

The new coach and new players have thus far yielded what ranks variously as the Big 12’s worst offense (in scoring, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and assists), defense (scoring and opponent turnovers forced) and rebounding team (total rebounds as well as rebounding margin).

The defense will still press, as it was known to do under Huggins, though Self said it might not be quite as frequent. He added that his team has to be prepared to make enough positive aggressive plays on offense to offset the turnovers that WVU inevitably forces against KU.

The Mountaineers forced 22 to beat Texas, which had been picked third in the conference in the preseason. That victory, in turn, lost some of its luster when the Longhorns followed in KU’s footsteps and blew a double-digit lead against UCF on Wednesday.

The Jayhawks will hope for something a bit less like what they experienced in Orlando on Jan. 10 and more like Stillwater, when they head to Morgantown on Saturday.

“Everyone’s juiced up when we come to town,” guard Nick Timberlake said. “That’s kind of a given when Kansas comes around.”

Then it’s a quick turnaround before they play Cincinnati in Lawrence on Monday.

“What we perceived going into the year as being ‘OK, we can catch our breath now’ has been taken away,'” Self said of the conference’s top-to-bottom strength. “There’s no breath-catching weeks.”

West Virginia Mountaineers (6-11, 1-3 Big 12) vs. No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks (15-2, 3-1 Big 12)

• WVU Coliseum, Morgantown, West Virginia, 3 p.m. Central Time

Broadcast: ESPN+

Radio: Jayhawk Radio Network (in Lawrence, KLWN AM 1320 / K269GB FM 101.7 / KKSW FM 105.9)

Keep an eye out

“A prime Derrick Rose”: No one is going to mistake Timberlake for the 16-year pro to whom Hunter Dickinson rather inexplicably compared him after his transition dunk Tuesday night. But he has quietly put together a few good games, not even really shooting many 3s in the process, and, for the first time all year, they have come away from Allen Fieldhouse. Self singled him out for unsolicited praise after the OSU game, noting “two passes he made in transition.” As Self has said, Timberlake was brought to KU to shoot. But if his shots aren’t falling — although he’s crept up to 36% from deep on the year — he can make himself useful with hustle and athleticism.

“He really can shoot, he gets it going some days in practice and you’re like ‘Wow. That’s what we need,'” assistant coach Kurtis Townsend said on “Hawk Talk” Wednesday. “I don’t know if when he gets in the game he gets nervous or whatever. But I think he’s getting better defensively too. That’s (what) he lacked when he first got here.”

Self said he knows Timberlake will be ready when his moment comes.

“At the end of the day, a team goes zone or whatever, we’re going to need somebody that can stretch the defense and have a game and be a threat,” Self said. “He’ll stay ready because he’s a fabulous young man and a great kid, but it’s not the role that he had envisioned, nor is it the role that I had envisioned.”

McDowell’s minutes: Jamari McDowell, who looked at times in nonconference play like he was going to establish himself as a valuable role player, hasn’t gotten on the floor much at all of late. He’s played a total of seven minutes and 28 seconds since the Big 12 schedule began, and Self didn’t bring him in against OSU until KU led by 25 with three minutes to go. (Michael Jankovich came in 34 seconds later.) On the one hand, Self hasn’t needed to use him as much because to varying degrees, Johnny Furphy, Elmarko Jackson and Timberlake are all playing better. On the other, McDowell has in those seven minutes and 28 seconds gone 0-for-1 with one turnover and one foul. In eight minutes against Wichita State just a few weeks ago, he scored six points and grabbed three rebounds with an assist and a steal.

photo by: AP Photo/Mitch Alcala

Kansas guard Johnny Furphy (10) drives past Oklahoma State guard Javon Small (12) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Stillwater, Okla.

photo by: AP Photo/Mitch Alcala

Kansas guard Elmarko Jackson (13) brings the ball up the court in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma State, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Stillwater, Okla.

photo by: AP Photo/Mitch Alcala

Kansas forward Parker Braun (23) and guard Nicolas Timberlake (25) guard Oklahoma State guard Bryce Thompson (1) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Stillwater, Okla.

Now what?: Earlier in the season, teams could play off both KJ Adams and Elmarko Jackson in order to keep defenders closer to Hunter Dickinson and stifle his effectiveness in the paint. Missouri, which held Dickinson to 13 points, was the defining example of this phenomenon. Furphy is getting more minutes in the starting lineup — and Self said Thursday, “I feel like we’ve found our fifth starter” — which he is in turn using to knock down 3-pointers, and Adams is starting to make jump shots.

“They try to put one guy in front of Hunter and somebody behind him and leave KJ open,” Townsend said, “so if KJ’s able to hit those 15-footers it makes us a lot harder to guard.”

Dickinson showed on Tuesday, when he repeatedly won one-on-one battles in the post against OSU centers, that he demands additional attention. But if Adams and Furphy can space out defenses, where is that attention going to come from?

Off-kilter observation

Eilert is a Kansas native; he grew up primarily in Osborne.


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