MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — If someone told Erik Stevenson a month ago that WVU would start its Big 12 schedule with a pair of losses, he wouldn’t have believed it.
West Virginia (9-4, 0-2 Big 12) returned from its two-game road trip without a win, starting its quest to compete in the toughest league in men’s college basketball in a less-than-ideal fashion. It continues on Saturday when the Mountaineers host No. 3 Kansas (12-1, 2-0) at the WVU Coliseum, after the Jayhawks’ own two-win start to its league gauntlet.
Stevenson is quick to remind, though, that the roles could just as easily be flipped. All four of WVU’s and Kansas’ conference games have been tooth-and-nail fights, as even the Jayhawks needed to survive two narrow matchups to earn its current spot atop the Big 12.
“They could be 0-2 just like us, but the ball bounced their way in certain moments, and I credit that to just how hard they play,” Stevenson said.
The Jayhawks are led by some diamonds in the rough that have helped prevent a post-championship hangover in Lawrence. Jalen Wilson is the team’s top returner, leading the squad with over 20 points per game. On his side is Gradey Dick, one of the top three-point shooters in the Big 12, along with Kevin McCullar Jr., who made the intraleague move from Texas Tech in the offseason.
There’s plenty that WVU will need to do to earn a win. For one, the Mountaineers will need to stay on the floor: foul trouble has racked them so far this season, with Stevenson, the team’s leading scorer, exiting both Big 12 games with five fouls (including a technical foul in the last matchup against Oklahoma State).
West Virginia also needs to improve its free throw shooting, which has taken a major dip since league play tipped off. In fact, WVU has made just 56 percent of its free throws in its last two games, both of which could have been won with a better performance from the line.
Playing the Jayhawks brings an added challenge, though, and it might take more than just strong play to get back in the win column on Saturday. Bob Huggins coyly hinted at that extra hump in his Friday press conference.
“Yeah, you’ve got to beat them, but you need some breaks, too,” Huggins said. “That was probably as well-put as I can make it.”
WVU fans know too well that it has happened before, and it can happen again. The Mountaineers have topped the Jayhawks six times inside the WVU Coliseum, including some true classic games that stand out in the West Virginia psyche.
The Mountaineers enter this contest a man down as point guard Kedrian Johnson will miss the game with a concussion. That could be a big loss for WVU, as Huggins describes the guard as “the best on-ball defender in our league, which says a lot.”
Huggins will call on his talented backcourt to make up for that loss.
“It’s just a matter of having our guys believing in themselves, being confident in themselves that they can make plays, and being smart out there,” Stevenson said. “Not making stupid fouls and staying on the floor, because when we have certain guys on the floor, we can beat anyone in the country.”
Tip-off between the Mountaineers and the third-ranked Jayhawks is set for 6 p.m. ET on Big 12 Now on ESPN+. Before tip-off, don’t miss a live episode of Mountaineer GameDay Basketball Edition, which airs at 10 a.m. ET.