We’re live at the Ferrell Center, where Baylor’s path to history just got a little easier. West Virginia’s Juwan Staten will not play today. He injured his left knee when he got clipped in the middle of the second half of Tuesday’s Texas game, didn’t practice Thursday and presumably Friday and won’t go against the Bears.
Baylor is on a roll with three straight wins, including one of the Big 12 season’s best Wednesday at Iowa State to end the Cyclones’ 21-game winning streak at the Hilton Coliseum. A win today also gives the program back-to-back victories against ranked teams for the first time ever. That’s lunacy. Scott Drew’s made two Elite Eights and a Sweet Sixteen (I guess that’s three Sweet Sixteens) and played for the Big 12 title last year and hasn’t beaten ranked teams in succession.
So that’s on the line today and, by the way, the Bears are only two games out of the Big 12 championship race. They’ll need some help to win it, but winning out and getting their claws on a share of the title isn’t impossible.
The Mountaineers came here with control of their championship vision, and that hasn’t change even if it’s now out of Staten’s hands. Winning out guarantees them no worse than a share of the title. A loss today makes it unlikely and makes Tuesday’s game at No. 8 Kansas a must-win, so this isn’t a do-or-die occasion if hardware is the goal, which it is. This is nevertheless significant because Tuesday could be … wait for it … The Biggest Regular-Season Game in the Bob Huggins Era.
How does WVU get there? Surviving TCU without Staten is one thing, and Staten’s long-term health is quite another because of the quick turnarounds in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments. Jevon Carter will start for Staten, and Tarik Phillip has to be ready.
The onus, though, seems to be on Jon Holton, and there’s a certain symmetry with today’s game. It was the first Baylor game, a brutal 18-point loss that, if we’re being honest, wasn’t that close, when he shot and missed a 3-pointer, got pulled and was informed along the way to his seat that he would not shoot another 3 in a game until he’d figured out his 8 for 46 conundrum in the gym.
He didn’t take a 3 for three games, tried and missed one against Oklahoma State and then went 2 for 2 against Texas. He’s been better in this three-game winning streak (17 points, 19 rebounds, six assists and just one turnover) and he’s played 22, 11 (?) and 26 minutes.
Minutes matter. When Holton isn’t in foul trouble and is effective, he plays more. When he plays more, WVU plays its game with greater ease. In WVU’s losses, he’s shooting 28.1 percent and is 1 for 10 from 3-point range and he’s totaled 25 points (4.2 ppg). In WVU’s wins, he’s shooting 51.7 percent and is 9 for 39 from 3-point range and has totaled 196 points (8.9 ppg).
That seems logical, right? Here’s where the light bulb goes off, I think. In losses, he averages 5.7 rebounds. In wins, he averaged 5.9 rebounds. In losses he averaged 1.2 steals, in wins he averages 1.7 steals. Those are fairly close.
But in losses, he plays 17.8 minutes. In wins, he plays 20.8 minutes. Three minutes is a bunch of possessions with the way WVU plays and a bunch of missed opportunities for Holton to impact a game.
Project his averages out to 40 minutes and it’s 12.8 rebounds in losses and 11.3 in wins and 3.7 steals in wins and 2.7 steals in losses … which is to say he’s always been an active player. Active players need to be active, and that’s especially true for Holton. He’s not a great or even good shooter, but he’s so energetic and so effective as a rebounder and defender, when he can stay tucked in, that WVU really loses something when he can’t play.
His offensive wanderings cut into his playing time, but it forced him to re-evaluate his game and focus on the things that make him better so he could rationalize his presence on the floor.
But here’s the truest truth about Holton: He was tired of having basketball taken away from him. If this is a return to form, or perhaps more accurately the display of new form, it’s a dynamite response to the latest dilemma.
“I’m hungry, man,” he said. “I wanted to play last year. I was ready to play last year. Last year was hard, to tell the truth. I’ve been ready since I got to Morgantown and I haven’t been able to play to my potential. But I play hard. I hustle. That’s all I can say.
“All Coach Huggins really wants me to do is rebound and hustle and play hard and bring energy, and the rest of my game will come. I’m a capable shooter. I can finish. The key is playing hard.”
Holton played 40 minutes and scored 15 points in an overtime win against TCU on Jan. 24. He would go scoreless three times, play fewer than 10 minutes twice and foul out once before reappearing against Texas. He worked for shots underneath the basket and his three baskets inside the 3-point line were a dunk, a hook shot and a put back, that being a critical score after one of his four offensive rebounds.
He moved against the zone defense, he defended the tallest Longhorns in the post and earned 28 minutes on the floor, his second-best total in conference play. The 3s were merely bonuses.
“That’s not what Jon is,” Huggins said. “Jon is what he was (Tuesday). He’s a guy who scores around the goal, a guy who could be an absolutely terrific offensive rebounder and, I think if he continues to work at it, a guy who should be able to bounce it at the rim.
“But if he continues to work at it and becomes a more consistent shooter from 3, that helps us spread them. It’s hard when they stand everyone in the lane and say, ‘Go ahead, we don’t care if you shoot it or not.’”
I care if you proceed …