Submitted by Kelso Sturgeon on Sunday, January 15, 2017 at 3:05 PM
West Virginia basketball made the big splash this week, when the crushed then-undefeated and #1-ranked Baylor 89-68 on Tuesday. After a narrow 74-72 escape over Texas on Saturday, the Mountaineers stand ready to rise in the polls where they’re already ranked 10th. And it’s time to put them squarely in the discussion with fellow Big 12 contenders Baylor and Kansas when it comes to talking about national championship possibilities.
The Mountaineers don’t have that individual star that jumps out at you. Esa Ahmad is the leading scorer and he gets 12 per game. Nathan Adrian is the top rebounder and he pulls down seven a night. Jevon Carter is the playmaker and he averages five assists. There’s nothing wrong with any of these numbers and certainly not any of the players, but they’re not lighting up a highlight reel.
What West Virginia does have its depth, defense, efficiency and good coaching. Bob Huggins has taught defense well over the course of his career and this team is no different, ranking fourth in the nation in defensive efficiency. The Mountaineers are especially adept at forcing turnovers—they forced Baylor into an astonishing 29 on Tuesday night. And a good December win at Virginia was also keyed by defensive pressure.
Huggins’ team handles not having a superstar with excellent depth. Only four West Virginia players average over twenty minutes per game and none average more than thirty. Foul trouble on a particular player is less likely to give them problems than most other teams, a significant advantage in the one-and-done chaos of the NCAA Tournament.
What’s perhaps most out of character for this team is how efficient they are on the offensive end. The four players who get the most minutes—Carter, Adrian, Ahmad and Tarik Phillips—all shoot over 50 percent from the floor. The Mountaineers are a top-five team nationally on offense, to go along with their defense.
There have been hiccups this season, most notably a 77-76 overtime loss at Texas Tech that really can’t be justified if you’re talking about a team in national championship terms. At this point it still seems reasonable to write it off as just as a bad Tuesday night in January when WVA didn’t bring their normal defensive effort, allowing 51 percent shooting to the Red Raiders. Every team is allowed one of these, but keep an eye on West Virginia to see if lack of focus in non-marquee games becomes a pattern.
The good reasons to like West Virginia are clearly there, and if they can win a home game with Kansas on January 24, those reasons will only grow. There is one problem though, and it has nothing to do with the lack of a star individual player.
That problem is that Las Vegas already seems to have priced the Mountaineers fairly accurately. Their championship odds are 28-1, a bit better than Virginia and in the same neighborhood as Indiana and Wisconsin. That seems about right and the fact West Virginia’s ATS record is 7-5 seems to further indicate the market has a good read on them.
There’s still moneymaking opportunities betting West Virginia. They’re ability to play high (against Baylor) and go low (against Texas Tech) just means that we’ll have to do our homework and target our spots for the most lucrative situations.