WVU and Texas intersect at important junction for both seasons
Texas and West Virginia meet in the middle of the Big 12 standings for tonight's 7 o'clock game at the Erwin Events Center, but the teams are headed in different directions. The Mountaineers have dropped to No. 20 in the media's top 25 poll and No. 15 in the NET Rankings after four losses in five games. The Longhorns shook off a four-game losing streak last week to win back-to-back games over TCU and Kansas State teams that have handed WVU its most sour losses this season.
"I think the team spirit right now is at a high," said Texas guard Courtney Ramey, who's scored 21, 15 and 26 points the past three games. "A lot of people were counting us out because of our injuries, but we believe in each one of our players. We're all Division I athletes. We know we've got a great chance to do what we want to do at the end of the year. We've got to keep attacking."
The Mountaineers (19-8, 7-7 Big 12) are certainly vulnerable with five straight Big 12 road losses, and their problem with turnovers and shooting has been simmering on the back burner for a long time now. They're 1-4 against the three teams above them in the standings and 6-3 against the teams below them, which is where you'll find Texas.
"This is a privilege to be able to play college basketball and to be able to play in this league at this level," coach Bob Huggins said. "Why wouldn't you cherish it?
Texas is 16-11 overall and 6-8 in the Big 12, and though their situations aren't dramatically different, one team's path just sounds a little more hopeful than the other right now. A third straight win at the expense of the Mountaineers would make the two teams even in the standings. Texas then plays at Texas Tech Saturday and at Oklahoma and at home against Oklahoma State next week. It's entirely possible to get the No. 4 seed and maybe even the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament and to make the NCAA Tournament.
If Shaka Smart's job is in the balance, it might interest you to know the Longhorns have one senior, and he's a walk-on, so pretty much everyone could be staring at the prospect of a coaching change in the offseason if they don't play deep into March. But that's not the only adversity the team is dealing with now. Starting forward Jericho Sims is out for the season with a back injury and guard Jase Febres is out indefinitely with a knee injury. Neither has played in this winning streak, and leading scorer Matt Coleman didn't play when Texas snapped its losing streak and beat TCU.
"I don't think it was relief in the locker room," Smart said afterward. "The guys were genuinely really, really happy. We challenged our guys and said, 'Hey, we won up there by one point and we have several guys who played up there who aren't going to play this time. Can you guys step forward and find a way to win?' It's not about making excuses. It's not about saying. 'OK, this guy's not on the floor.' It's about winning anyway.
"My wife's always had that mantra. If the refs are making bad calls - and I'm not saying they were - or if you've got guys hurt, you've just got to find a way to win anyway. It's easier said than done, but our guys really did a good job staying connected throughout the game, and the sense after the game was excitement. They followed the plan, stuck together and found a way to win. Now we have another game Saturday where we want to move forward and get better."
The Longhorns moved along to Bramlage Coliseum and had no trouble with Kansas State. They won shooting 52 percent from the floor and 42 percent from 3-point range, and Coleman was back, too, and scored 12 points.
"Our guys have really taken ownership of what we've asked them to do, starting with this guy," Smart said as he nodded toward Ramey, who had 26 points, six rebounds, two assists and five steals. "He's really taken a leadership role and done a great job, first and foremost, in practice and our preparation owning the message that the coaches have given to them. In the game, we asked them to play with grit. It's hard to come in here and win if you don't have a level of grit to you."
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