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Shorthanded Cougars bracing for difficult trip to surging West Virginia

West Virginia guard Seth Wilson (14), forward Patrick Suemnick (24) and guard RaeQuan Battle celebrate victory against Kansas, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, in Morgantown, W.Va. The Mountaineers have proven capable of beating quality teams despite their 8-13 record. Next up for West Virginia is a Saturday tilt against BYU in Morgantown.

What looked like a rare road breather on No. 22 BYU’s basketball schedule — if there is such a thing in the Big 12 — is suddenly no longer the case.

Despite its 8-13 overall record, West Virginia, 3-5 in league play, appears to be as capable as any other team in the conference of knocking off the Cougars (3-4, 15-5), BYU coach Mark Pope said Thursday after having had a few days to analyze the Mountaineers.

“This West Virginia team is really good. You think about it: All they have done in the last two weeks is beat Kansas, beat Texas, and beat Cincinnati. And that is an eight-win team? Go figure,” — BYU coach Mark Pope

West Virginia, which moved into a four-way tie for 10th place in the league standings with Wednesday night’s 69-65 win over Cincinnati, is especially dangerous in Morgantown.

Tipoff is at 4 p.m. MST and the game will be streamed on Big 12 Now on ESPN+, with Mark Neely and Tim Welsh on the call.

“This West Virginia team is really good. You think about it: all they have done in the last two weeks is beat Kansas, beat Texas, and beat Cincinnati. And that is an eight-win team? Go figure,” Pope said before the Cougars practiced shorthanded Thursday afternoon, with only nine scholarship players available.

Pope said earlier in the day that big man Aly Khalifa has been fighting an illness all week; the Cougars, who had a midweek bye, practiced Monday and Tuesday and had Wednesday off before turning their focus to the Mountaineers on Thursday.

Marcus Adams Jr. (ankle, knee) also didn’t practice Thursday, after having gotten in his “first full week of practice” last week before the Cougars downed Texas 84-72 on Saturday. Could Adams, who has appeared in just one game, be available against the Mountaineers?

“He is still dealing with some injuries that I don’t know if they are ever going to be able to resolve this year. So we are trying to get him to a place where he can get fully cleared,” Pope said. “But to just have him on the practice floor was super fun. He’s got to do some things modified right now because he can’t do some things full participation all the time. But we had a really good week with him last week. So we will see. We will see how it goes.”

West Virginia has certainly received a midseason boost from the return of an injured player, as 6-foot-11 senior center Jesse Edwards, a transfer from Syracuse, scored a season-high 25 points — 19 in the second half — and collected 10 rebounds in the win.

Edwards, who fractured his wrist in the loss at UMass in December, came off the bench in WVU’s 70-66 loss at Oklahoma State last Saturday. But he came up huge in his first start in six weeks in front of 10,349 at WVU Coliseum, going 9 of 9 from the floor in the second half and sinking the game-sealing free throw to give WVU a four-point lead in the final seconds.

“This Jesse Edwards was unbelievable last night. I mean, his size and length and the space he covers. I mean, if you talk about one piece that is going to change your whole existence as a team (he might be it),” Pope said. “They’ve got some other guys healthy. Their roster is finally healthy. And they are great at home. They are unbelievable at home.”

Cincinnati led by 10 with six minutes remaining, but the Mountaineers rallied, with former coach Bob Huggins in the building for the first time since he resigned last June following an arrest on suspicion of DUI.

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In its last three Big 12 games in Morgantown, West Virginia has downed No. 25 Texas, No. 3 Kansas and Cincinnati, which was No. 33 in the NET rankings.

BYU was No. 6 in the NET and No. 10 in Kenpom.com heading into Thursday night’s games. The Cougars traveled to UCF two days before they played the Knights in Orlando, as the football team always does when it plays in the Eastern Time Zone.

However, because tipoff is at 4 p.m. MST, 6 p.m. local time, they elected to not leave until Friday for this cross-country game.

“I am looking forward to bringing BYU into town and we’ve now got everyone back,” West Virginia coach Josh Eilert said after the win. “We’re 21 games in (and) we are finally whole, so what’s stopping us from reaching our potential? Let’s treat this as an 11-game season, and let’s make the most of it. We’ve got no quit in us.”

It will be the teams’ first meeting since 1973, and only third ever. West Virginia downed BYU 68-51 in 1947 and BYU returned the favor to the tune of 85-83 in 1973.

One key stat to watch will be how often the home team can get to the free-throw line; Pope said West Virginia is plus-30 over their opponents in free throws while playing a home, compared to minus-30 on the road.

Cougars on the air

No. 22 BYU (3-4, 15-5)
at West Virginia (3-5, 8-13) 
Saturday, 4 p.m. MST
WVU Coliseum, Morgantown
TV: ESPN+
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

The Mountaineers are averaging 31.3 free-throw attempts in their three Big 12 wins, all at home, and only 17.0 free throws in their five Big 12 losses, per Greg Wrubell of the BYU Sports Radio Network.

“They are 44% shooting the 3 at home and 33% shooting it on the road. Every stat you look at on this team is a team that is killing it at home right now,” Pope said. “Clearly, they have beat the best in our league at their place. … That is how awesome this league is. And so, it is great. We love every bit of it.

“Can’t wait to get there. Morgantown is a really special place. It is beautiful. And their fan base is incredible and it is going to be an unbelievable game on Saturday.”

West Virginia fans run onto the court after a defeating Kansas Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, in Morgantown, W.Va. | Kathleen Batten, Associated Press
West Virginia fans run onto the court after a defeating Kansas Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, in Morgantown, W.Va. | Kathleen Batten, Associated Press