No. 18 West Virginia got a career-high 27 points from Esa Ahmad as they landed their second massive home win of the season, picking off No. 2 Kansas, 85-69, to snap a two-game losing streak.
The Jayhawks had won 18 straight games following a season-opening overtime loss to Indiana in Hawai’i. Two weeks ago, the Mountaineers handed then-No. 1 and then-undefeated Baylor their first loss of the season.
West Virginia, who is known as Press Virginia because of their ability to force turnovers at obscene rates, only caused 12 Kansas turnovers, but their harassing defense kept Player of the Year favorite Frank Mason III in check. He had 12 points and two assists while shooting 5-for-15 from the floor.
The Mountaineers closed the game on a 27-10 run after Kansas took their first lead of the second half at 59-58.
Josh Jackson led the Jayhawks with 22 points, four boards and four assists, but it was his inability to effectively guard Ahmad that eventually cost Kansas. Jackson fouled out with less than two minutes left.
This was the first loss in Big 12 play for Kansas, dropping them into a tie for first place in the league standings. West Virginia sits two games behind Kansas and Baylor.
Here are five things we learned in this game:
1. West Virginia doesn’t have to force a ton of turnovers to win games: One of the concerns for West Virginia of late has been the inability of their pressure to force turnovers. Tuesday night was the first time in four games that the Mountaineers had forced more turnovers than they had committed, and even then, they forced 13 with a turnover rate of 18.8%; their season-long turnover rate was 31.1% entering Tuesday, even with the last three games factored in.
Part of that is because the turnovers that Kansas did force were costly. Nine of the 13 were live-ball turnovers, which led to 19 points off of turnovers. But the other part of it is that West Virginia was able simply able to wear down a Kansas team that just doesn’t have the depth needed to deal with that kind of harassment for 40 minutes. They did a particularly good job on Frank Mason, a National Player of the Year favorite, who finished with just 12 points on 5-for-15 shooting.
2. West Virginia’s résumé looks awful impressive right now: The Mountaineers beat Kansas at home by 16 points. They beat Baylor at home by 21 points. They have a win at No. 12 Virginia. There aren’t going to be many teams that can match those top three wins. The issue is the losses they have incurred. Temple beat them by four points, and Temple isn’t very good. Oklahoma beat them in overtime in Morgantown, and Oklahoma isn’t very good. That is a bit of a black mark on their tournament profile, but those wins should put the rest of the country on alert: when Bob Huggins’ club shows up ready to play, they can beat just about anyone, anywhere.
3. The Mountaineers needed Ahmad to get it going: In the last three games – a two-point win at Texas, a loss at home to Oklahoma, a loss at Kansas State – Ahmad, who is the second-leading scorer on the year for the Mountaineers, had a total of just 13 points. On Tuesday, he finished with 27, the majority of them coming when he was able to lose Josh Jackson in West Virginia’s half court sets. He’s one of the best offensive weapons for the Mountaineers in the half court, and his scoring against a set Kansas defense is one of the reasons the Mountaineers were able to win despite their inability to force turnovers at their usual rate.
4. It’s time for us to start being concerned about the defensive issues Kansas has: The Jayhawks have some flaws on the defensive end of the floor. They have fully embraced this small-ball lineup with Josh Jackson at the four, but it had cost them on the defensive glass. They foul too much. They don’t create near the number of turnovers that you would expect from a team with the individual defenders that they have available – Mason, Devonte’ Graham, Jackson, LeGerald Vick.
Tuesday was glaring. Jackson, in particular, was exposed, as he struggled mightily to slow down Ahmad. He’s a very good on-ball defender. West Virginia took advantage of his penchant for struggling to chase players around screens and his lack of attention off the ball. Things got bad enough for the Jayhawks that Bill Self was forced to play zone for just the second time this season. Self is not a man that is prove to going zone.
One of the reasons for this is that both Mason and Graham play a ton of minutes, and it’s not easy on their legs to play that level of defense for 36 minutes a night in league play, not when they have to carry the load they carry offensively.
The biggest problem, however, is …
5. … the Jayhawks seriously lack front court depth: The loss of Udoka Azubuike really showed up on Tuesday night. Landen Lucas with 10 boards, but he hasn’t provided much offensive lift and spent much of Tuesday night in foul trouble. The only other big man on the Kansas roster is Carlton Bragg Jr., and he just isn’t ready physically to play the five against a team like West Virginia. The result? The Mountaineers got 34 points in the paint and grabbed 40.6 percent of the available offensive rebounds, a number that is far too high.