Iowa State picked up a blowout win over No. 15 West Virginia on Wednesday night as the Cyclones used some “Hilton Magic” to earn a 93-77 Big 12 home win.
While Iowa State (12-9, 3-6) had a balanced scoring effort to earn its biggest win of the season — getting huge outings from guards Donovan Jackson (25 points) and Lindell Wigginton (22 points) — the real story in this one is the continued freefall of West Virginia after a promising start to the 2017-2018 season.
Ranked as the No. 2 team in the country three weeks ago, the Mountaineers started the season at 15-1 with a 4-0 mark in the Big 12. After another meltdown against the Cyclones on Wednesday, West Virginia (16-6, 5-4) has lost five of its last six games while playing in the nation’s deepest conference.
So what happened to West Virginia to cause its sudden reversal? Opponents are figuring out the vaunted press that head coach Bob Huggins has used so successfully over the past few years.
After scoring only 45 points total in an ugly home loss to Tennessee over the weekend, Iowa State put up 53 points on the Mountaineers in the first half after West Virginia struggled to force turnovers. Giving up eye-opening point totals during a 20-minute stretch has been a common trend for the Mountaineers during this recent skid.
West Virginia has blown three second-half, double-digit leads during that span. The second half of games, overall, has been abysmal for the Mountaineers in recent weeks. They allowed 50 points in the second half to Kentucky, 47 points to TCU and 43 points to Kansas — all of them losses. And keep in mind that this team was ranked No. 16 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, entering Wednesday night’s game. Defense and forcing turnovers is West Virginia’s identity.
The Iowa State first-half blitz is the outlier of that recent stretch, but it also shows that if a team is prepared to face West Virginia’s press then the Mountaineers are in serious trouble. The losses to Kentucky, TCU and Kansas all signified teams who made halftime adjustments and were able to put up serious points in a hurry once they figured out West Virginia’s first wave of defenders.
Iowa State didn’t even need a halftime break to beat the brakes off of West Virginia. The Cyclone backcourt of Jackson and Wigginton tore up the press and was good to go from the start.
That could be the main issue for West Virginia.
Now that we’re in the heart of conference play, teams in the Big 12 aren’t intimidated by “Press Virginia.” All of the Big 12’s coaches and players have faced the Mountaineers two-to-three times each season over the last few years. They know what to expect.
If a Big 12 team has strong guard play, and limits turnovers, like Iowa State did with only eight turnovers on Wednesday, then West Virginia is forced to create offense in the half court. That’s never been a strength for this group. As NBC colleague Rob Dauster noted, Mountaineer leading scorer Jevon Carter puts up more ridiculous shots than perhaps any All-American candidate in the country because West Virginia is so desperate for consistent half-court offense.
West Virginia is also still trying to effectively integrate Esa Ahmad back into the rotation since his return to the team. The second leading scorer and rebounder for the Mountaineers last season, Ahmad has looked visibly rusty since his return, as he went scoreless playing a combined 36 minutes in the losses to TCU and Kentucky.
A team that once looked like a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is now desperately trying to prevent themselves from falling out of the top 25 all in the course of a month. And it doesn’t get any easier for West Virginia from here. The four teams that beat the Mountaineers in the Big 12 all get another crack at West Virginia. Shaky on the road during some recent games, the Mountaineers also have plenty of games away from Morgantown.
Once regarded as one of the best teams in college hoops, West Virginia should still be safely in the Field of 68. But they certainly don’t look like the darkhorse Final Four team that some predicted.