The goal in college basketball is excellence in March. But performance in February dictates how (and if) the logistics of a team’s March Madness opportunity.
West Virginia is off to a smooth start in the year’s shortest month, as the Mountaineers won their second game in as many February tries Wednesday night in a 76-61 pasting of Iowa State at the WVU Coliseum.
West Virginia (18-4, 6-3 Big 12) found its offensive groove early and often. The Mountaineers shot 29-for-58 from the field, though they did struggle behind the 3-point arc (6-of-22).
It was a balanced scoring attack as five Mountaineers scored in double figures, led by Oscar Tshiebwe’s 16 points. Chase Harler (14), Derek Culver (12), Emmitt Mathews Jr. (12) and Jermaine Haley (11) also tallied double-digit scoring. Mathews effort was another encouraging sign as he appears to be clawing his way back from a serious midseason slump.
Defensively, the Mountaineers were their typical stingy selves. Iowa State (9-13, 2-6) struggled to find the basket all night. The Cyclones hit just 23-of-58 shots from the field and were 5-for-16 from 3-point range. West Virginia forced 14 ISU turnovers.
As they have all season, the Mountaineers dominated the glass. West Virginia out-rebounded Iowa State, 46-28. Tshiebwe led WVU with 10 boards in tallying a double-double.
West Virginia is ostensibly chasing Baylor and Kansas in the race for the Big 12 regular season title. But, with a three-game deficit to No. 1 ranked Baylor and a two-game deficit to third-ranked Kansas, that’s a mountain likely too tall to scale.
What is well within reach for these Mountaineers, however, is a high seed in the NCAA Tournament and a chance to play first- and second-round games within driving distance for their fans. WVU’s ability to humble and dispirit conference opponents when they come to the Coliseum has been the fuel behind this season’s surge. The Mountaineers aren’t just beating these teams at home. They’re demoralizing them.
West Virginia’s road show hasn’t been nearly as impressive. And that’s where the Mountaineers go next as they visit Oklahoma in Norman on Saturday. Racking up impressive looking victories at home helps the NCAA resume. Winning road games against good teams defines it. It’s the only thing missing this season. But February is a prime opportunity for WVU to stack a few to impress the selection committee.
Time will tell if Wednesday night’s offensive fireworks were an aberration resulting from playing an overmatched team in a comfortable home environment or a harbinger of better things to come. If it’s the latter, the next two months could be special.