The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 22, 2014

Baylor game as close to ‘must-win’ as it gets for WVU

Mountaineers host Bears at 1:30 p.m. today

By Cam Huffman
Sports Editor

MORGANTOWN — Bob Huggins doesn’t believe in “must-wins.” The veteran coach, who’s won more than 700 career games, wants to win them all.

But when West Virginia and Baylor tip things off at 1:30 p.m. today at the WVU Coliseum, Huggins knows his Mountaineers are in desperate need of a victory.

At 15-11 overall and 7-6 in Big 12 play, WVU is still clinging to hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth. But with just five games left before the Big 12 tournament, the Mountaineers need wins. With difficult challenges at No. 17 Iowa State and at home against No. 8 Kansas ahead, a win against the Bears (17-9, 5-8 Big 12) is as close to a must as you will find.

“I think we’re at that point,” said Huggins, whose team was listed as one of the first four out in Joe Lunardi’s latest “Bracketology” for ESPN. “We’ve got to win some games. That’s no secret. We won some games and got ourselves back in the hunt, and then we didn’t play very well at Texas (an 88-71 loss the last time out on Feb. 15). Now we’ve got to win games. I don’t think it’s any secret we’ve put ourselves behind the 8-ball.”

Baylor’s season has been a roller coaster.

The Bears started out 12-1 — the only loss a tight one to then-No. 8 Syracuse — and had a big win over then-No. 3 Kentucky during that stretch. An 87-82 loss at Iowa State, though, sparked a run of eight losses in 10 games — a 66-64 setback in Waco, Texas, against WVU included — knocking Baylor out of the polls and putting its own tournament hopes on life support.

Baylor, though, has won its last three, including overtime victories over Kansas State and Oklahoma State in the last week, to put itself back in the mix.

According to Huggins, the ups and downs of this Baylor team are really no mystery. It’s all about junior point guard Kenny Cherry, who’s averaging 10.2 points and 4.9 assists per game.

“He started out playing really well,” said Huggins. “Then he got hurt and didn’t play quite as well for a stretch. Now he’s starting to play well again. When he plays well, they’re really good.”

Baylor is also blessed with size, including 6-foot-9 senior forward Cory Jefferson, who’s averaging 13.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Isaiah Austin, a 7-1 freshman, is averaging 11 points and 5.8 boards, and sophomore forward Rico Gathers is averaging 7.4 points and 7.4 rebounds for a Baylor team ranked 16th nationally with 39.7 boards per game.

“All three of those guys are talented guys,” said Huggins. “When Cherry plays really well, that takes some of the focus off of those bigs. He’s able to open things up.”

The Mountaineers, who have won four of their last six — including knocking off No. 21 Oklahoma and No. 11 Iowa State at home — have had a week to regroup after the loss to the Longhorns, and Huggins believes the time off has been beneficial.

“Everybody’s got some bumps and bruises,” he said. “This was a good time for us to get healed up for a good stretch run.”

Junior point guard Juwan Staten leads WVU with 18.1 points per game to go along with six assists and 5.9 rebounds. Sophomore guard Eron Harris is averaging 17.6 points per game.

Today’s game will air locally on WOAY television.

— Follow @CamHuffmanRH on Twitter for live tweets from today’s game.