West Virginia hoops readies for Texas Tech
The last time West Virginia University and Texas Tech played basketball, the Mountaineers knocked off the Red Raiders in last season’s Big 12 tournament semifinals.
Since then, however, the fortunes of the two programs have gone in opposite directions.
Texas Tech regrouped from the loss in the Big 12 tournament to advance to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. WVU won two games in the NCAAs last season before being eliminated in the Sweet Sixteen.
Now, with the start of Big 12 play upon them and TTU due in Morgantown on Wednesday for a 7 p.m. tipoff broadcast on ESPNU, the Red Raiders are the No. 11 team in the country while West Virginia (8-4) has plummeted from the polls and continues to search for some consistency on both ends of the floor.
For Texas Tech (11-1), consistency has been key to the Red Raiders’ success.
“For us, it’s Year Three building the program,” third-year Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said at October’s Big 12 Media Day in Kansas City. “The first year we really wanted to lay the foundation and try to become part of the fight. I will always be appreciative of that first team led by five special seniors. We created a culture that first year and we were competitive.
“Last year, the second year, we thought we were good enough to compete and ultimately win and we wanted to finish. We won a lot of close games last year, resulted in us making it to the Elite Eight which is a special run. Five guys graduating, four guys under professional contracts now.
“This third year what we’re trying to do is become consistent. We want to make sure that last year’s success doesn’t define us as a program. We want to be part of the fight again. It’s easy to talk about and difficult to do especially in the big bevel but that’s the challenge in front of us and, again, I have been pleased with our players.”
Leading the charge so far this season for the Red Raiders has been 6-foot-6 sophomore guard Jarrett Culver.
A Lubbock, Texas, native, Culver stayed home to play at TTU and the Red Raiders have benefited greatly from that choice. Culver is averaging slightly less than 30 minutes per game and leads Texas Tech with a 19.6 points per game scoring average. In a December clash with No. 1 Duke, Culver looked the part of a superstar by scoring 25 points, grabbing six rebounds and accounting for four assists as the Red Raiders played the Blue Devils tough in a 69-58 loss — the only blemish on TTU’s record so far this season.
In addition to being Tech’s leading scorer, Culver also is TTU’s top rebounder and leads the team in assists.
“Jarrett Culver has a chance to be one of the best players in college basketball,” Beard said. “Others have seen that too. He’s starting to get attention, which I like for our players. I think Jarrett would be the first to tell you that these things wouldn’t have happened if we wouldn’t have had the great NCAA Tournament Elite Eight run last year.
“The great thing about Culver are the things that most people don’t know. Everybody sees the length and the athleticism, the talent. But what I see is the love of the game. Culver is old school in a lot of ways. He loves basketball. He’s in there every day. He’s also a student of the game. As a young player he watches more film than any guy I’ve ever coached. He goes above and beyond. Believe it or not I have a daughter in an Ivy League school, but I can’t speak. Culver goes above and beyond what’s asked of him in the film room, popular guy in the locker room, Culver is special.”
Also making a difference for the Red Raiders this season is guard Matt Mooney, a graduate transfer from South Dakota. Mooney has started all 12 games for TTU so far, averaging 10.4 points per game.
“He did about all he could do at the mid-major level, played in a lot of high-quality games against high-major schools, had some good games against Big 12 schools,” Beard said of Mooney. “He is about as dedicated of a player I’ve ever been around. He’s special.
“He takes his craft serious on a day-to-day basis. He could have gone anywhere in the country his graduate year in college basketball. Personally I take a lot of responsibility and I appreciate Matt trusting his senior year to our program and we put him in every situation we can to be successful and he’s returning the favor.”
West Virginia opens Big 12 play with some questions marks surrounding the team. Junior forward Sagaba Konate’s bothersome knee has forced him out of action in recent games while WVU coach Bob Huggins continues to search for an answer at point guard with multiple nagging injuries limiting junior Beetle Bolden’s success.
One bright spot for the Mountaineers, at least in their Sunday win against visiting Lehigh, was the play of freshman forward Derek Culver.
The Mountaineers’ Culver, who did not make his collegiate debut until Dec. 22 after serving a Huggins-enforced suspension, notched the first double-double of his West Virginia career with 11 points and 11 rebounds against Lehigh.
“Derek was Derek,” Huggins said. “He could be an elite rebounder. I don’t think there is any doubt about that. His strength and his athleticism — he’s got good hands.
“We’ve just got to get him to be a little more sound. It would be nice if we could run a set with him — that would help too.”