Before this season began, West Virginia and Connecticut were picked among the teams expected to contend for the Big East regular-season title.
Only one school remains in the hunt, but time is running out for the eighth-ranked Mountaineers.
To keep from falling further behind the frontrunners, West Virginia has the daunting task of trying to earn its first road win over a Connecticut team desperate to improve its slim NCAA tournament chances.
In the Big East preseason poll, the conference’s coaches picked West Virginia to finish second behind Villanova and ahead of Connecticut. The Mountaineers (21-5, 10-4) have lived up to those expectations, but back-to-back losses earlier this month helped drop them two games behind Syracuse with four to play.
They bounced back with consecutive victories, including Saturday’s 75-63 home win over Seton Hall in which they endured another rough shooting performance.
West Virginia went the final nine minutes without a field goal and nearly blew a 19-point lead. The Mountaineers got their final 15 points from the free-throw line and were 12 of 16 in the final two minutes.
“Sometimes when we get up big, we get too lackadaisical and just stop doing what got us the lead, so we need to work on that,” said forward Kevin Jones, the team’s co-leader in the win with 16 points. “We weren’t getting the shots that we were getting in the first half because we weren’t finding the seams or the open spots that we usually do.”
Despite his team’s occasional shooting struggles, Mountaineers forward Devin Ebanks has made 55.6 percent of his attempts over the past five games while averaging 15.8 points—nearly four above his season average.
Ebanks, though, was held to four points while shooting 2 of 8 in last season’s 61-55 home loss to the then-No. 5 Huskies. West Virgina also had its worst night from the floor in the defeat at 30.3 percent.
Connecticut (16-11, 6-8) is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament after reaching the Final Four last season, but it has a victory over then-no. 1 Texas and won 84-75 at No. 3 Villanova on Feb. 15. The victory over the Wildcats was the Huskies’ first since coach Jim Calhoun returned from a medical leave of absence.
The Huskies followed their latest upset with a 76-58 victory at Rutgers on Saturday. Jerome Dyson scored 20 points and Kemba Walker had 14 of his 16 in the second half.
“At this point, we’re desperate,” Dyson said. “We’ve got to win. That’s our main goal right now is to take it one game at a time and play as hard as possible. This was a big confidence builder for us and we have to look forward to Monday’s game.”
Dyson, who leads Connecticut with 18.7 points per game, and Walker were among four players in double figures in last season’s win over the Mountaineers.
Connecticut leads the all-time series 14-4 and has won all seven of its home games between the teams, including two at the XL Center in Hartford.
The Mountaineers have not beaten the Huskies since the 2008 Big East tournament quarterfinals.