With rising stakes, No. 6 Mountaineers finally get shot at No. 3 Baylor

Gold and Blue Nation

The elusive matchup between West Virginia and Baylor has been nearly two months in the making, but it will finally go down in Morgantown on Tuesday. The contest tips off at 5 p.m. on ESPN.

The sixth-ranked Mountaineers (17-6, 10-4 Big 12) finally get their shot at the No. 2 Bears (18-1, 10-1 Big 12) after three postponements this season — each time the game was pushed back, however, the stakes seemingly got more inflated. Now, they couldn’t be higher for West Virginia as it climbs the national rankings and is eyeing a first-round bye — or even a one-seed — in the Big 12 Tournament.

WVU can get a jump on these goals on Tuesday in Morgantown, of course, and the Mountaineers are keeping close attention to exactly where they stand for the postseason.

“We’ve got a big blackboard in the film room and [the players] do it,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins. “We’ve got guys on our team that know where we are and what has to happen and who’s coming next, so much so that they have their NET ranking up there….I think last year hit them really hard, the idea that it can be taken away from you in seconds.”

To lay it out specifically: with just one victory in its last three games, Baylor will take the Big 12 regular season title as well as the top seed in the conference tournament. If they lose out and West Virginia wins, that those spoils go to the Mountaineers. If Baylor does earn that win, however, WVU gets a nice consolation with the second seed in the tournament and a first-round bye.

The Bears have returned after a three-week hiatus stemming from five straight cancellations and postponements, which looks to have knocked their groove a little bit — they survived Iowa State at home upon their return, then took a hefty loss at Kansas on Saturday, 71-58.

While Baylor was away from the court, WVU made up some crucial ground, putting together a 6-1 February — with the sole loss coming in double-overtime to Oklahoma, seemingly without hurting the Mountaineers’ postseason resume.

Baylor has been pushed by strong guard play motored by Jared Butler, who leads the team with 16.4 points per contest. As one of the strongest all-around players in the league, Butler is a late and favorable contender for the Big 12 Player of the Year — but Bob Huggins isn’t quite ready to concede that award to a Bear quite yet.

“I think the guy that we have that’s averaging a double-double and has dominated the league has got a pretty good shot, as well,” he said.

At 15 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, there’s very little question as to whether WVU’s Derek Culver has been the most dominating inside presence in the league. Baylor’s Flo Thamba as the 6-10 frame to match Culver, but the starter spends just 15 minutes on the floor each game — giving the Mountaineer a clear advantage if he can stay out of foul trouble.

With hot hands on both teams, this could turn into a shootout. The Bears have the best offense — and the best three-point offense — in the Big 12, making 42 percent of their shots from deep as they score more than 80 points per game. That’s not to count out WVU, who has had several names — like Taz Sherman, Deuce McBride and Sean McNeil — have 20-plus point games after catching fire from behind the arc.

This contest gets underway at 5 p.m. on ESPN at the WVU Coliseum.

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