The distance between No. 3 Kansas and No. 14 West Virginia isn’t much. Both have dominant defenses. Both are generally considered to be one of the 10 or 15 best teams in the country.
The space that does exist between them, though, is meaningful. It’s that space that separates what looks to be a legitimate national title contender from a very good team.
The Jayhawks flexed their defensive muscle while the Mountaineers’ offensive deficiencies were on display Wednesday as Kansas won their showdown in Morgantown, 58-49. Kansas remains just a game behind first-place Baylor in the Big 12 with two home games against the Big 12’s soft middle ahead before their clash with the No. 1 Bears in Waco on Feb. 22.
The final 6 minutes of the game was a perfect exhibit of how impactful the difference between quite good and great is.
Kansas’ defense was phenomenal. West Virginia made one of its last 12 shots from the field, including missing its last nine. The Mountaineers turned it over six times. The Jayhawks were down three on the road to a top-15 opponent, a Bob Huggins team, and closed on a 13-1 run.
The Jayhawks’ offense is good – it’s hard not to be when you’ve got Udoka Azubuike in the middle shooting 74 percent from the field and Devon Dotson, an All-American candidate, running the point – but it has its issues, namely 3-point shooting. They’re shooting shooting just 33.7 percent from distance with Isaiah Moss and Christian Braun the only two players connecting at least at a 35 percent clip. Still, they’re top-15 in offense on KenPom, and when you’ve got the top-rated defense, you can deal with just OK shooting.
On the other side of Wednesday’s ledger was West Virginia’s offense. Surely, it was made worse by the Jayhawks’ defense, but it was clear it’s going to be very hard to count on the Mountaineers getting enough buckets against good teams to bet on them going deep in March. Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver are major problems for opponents inside, but it’s real work to create the type of post touches those two need consistently to turn possessions into buckets.
Huggins doesn’t have much in the way of playmaking on his roster. He couldn’t turn to anyone as the shots were clanking again and again down the stretch against Kansas and just tell them to go get a bucket. Everything has to be manufactured, not organically created. Add in the Mountaineers’ guards’ proclivity for turning it over, and it’s just not an offense you can trust.
West Virginia’s defense is excellent, but it doesn’t generate offense quite like those Press Virginia teams of year’s past. Maybe the Mountaineers’ elite offensive rebounding can buoy the offense, but there are limits to how good an offense can be that relies on missed shots to score points.
As has been discussed time and again this season, the NCAA tournament looks to be wide open, with the overall talent in the country down and none of the super teams we’ve seen recently. West Virginia absolutely has a chance to play itself to Atlanta and the Final Four. Wednesday showed, though, why their odds might not be much different than a dozen or so other teams while the Jayhawks will be where the smart money goes.