Have defense, won’t travel: WVU not the same on the road

There’s an adage in sports that says, “defense travels.” The 2019-20 West Virginia basketball team seems intent on disproving it.

West Virginia lost at Texas Tech, 89-81, Wednesday night. It is the Mountaineers (16-4, 4-3 Big 12) fourth loss in five road games this season. For a team that’s had few problems, the road performance is becoming a serious one.

The loss at Texas Tech (13-7, 4-3) marked the second-straight road defeat to an unranked team for WVU. It also marked the second-straight road game where the one of the nation’s best defensive teams played nothing like it.

The Red Raiders shot 54.3 percent from the field Wednesday night and 64.7 percent from 3-point range en route to scoring 89 points, their most in Big 12 play. TTU averaged 68 points a game in Big 12 games coming into the match up against WVU. West Virginia held Texas Tech to 54 points in the Mountaineers 66-54 win over the Red Raiders in Morgantown on Jan. 11.

The loss at Texas Tech followed the same blueprint as the Mountaineers last road game. Kansas State put up also put up its Big 12 season-high in points when hosting WVU when the Wildcats beat WVU, 84-68, on Jan. 18. KSU averaged 58 points in Big 12 game before WVU arrived in Manhattan, Kan.

The Mountaineers have the nation’s second-best field-goal defense, with opponents shooting 35.8 percent per contest. That defense hasn’t traveled. In their last two road games, West Virginia’s opponents made 56.8 percent of their shots.

WVU’s road woes are troublesome, but they shouldn’t be unexpected. The Mountaineers are the least experienced team in the Big 12. Inexperience often leads to wide variance in splits between home and road performance.

That’s certainly the case thus far for these young Mountaineers. WVU is 3-0 at home and 1-3 on the road in Big 12 play. The Mountaineers look like a conference championship and Final Four contender in the WVU Coliseum. They look like an NIT team on the opponent’s campus.

The loss in Lubbock, Texas, Wednesday night puts a serious damper on West Virginia’s quest for a Big 12 regular-season title. The greater damage from the loss is the Mountaineers are afforded few remaining opportunities to score quality road wins to add to their resume.

Quality road victories are the biggest asset towards building a team’s case to the NCAA Tournament committee, whether it’s in a case towards inclusion (not an issue for WVU) or for seeding placement (definitely an issue for WVU). To date, West Virginia has none. The only ranked road opponent left on WVU’ schedule is an incredibly difficult game at No. 1 Baylor on Feb. 15.

The trappings attached to road conference play – the crowd, the officials, the travel, overlooking lesser opponents – overwhelm young teams more so than veteran ones. Veteran players have learned how to handle and overcome the challenges that road. The young Mountaineers are forced to learn under fire how to handle Big 12 play on the opposing campus.

It’s not surprising they’re getting burned.