Even when the final buzzer sounded and the red lights illuminated on the backboards inside Gallagher Iba Arena on Wednesday in Stillwater, Okla., K-State had not yet achieved what it needs in a bad way.
The Wildcats (14-4, 3-3 Big 12) had snared their first road win in Big 12 play, sure, but a win over Oklahoma State — still winless in conference play — was certainly not the signature win for which K-State remains on the hunt.
No, that opportunity will arrive when No. 7 West Virginia (15-3, 4-2) trots into Bramlage Coliseum Saturday afternoon.
The Wildcats and No. 7 Mountaineers are slated to tip at 5 p.m. Saturday in Manhattan on ESPN 2.
For both teams’ differing backgrounds entering Saturday — for the Wildcats, a schedule rife with wins but lacking in prestige; for the Mountaineers, a place among college basketball’s elite — both are appropriately coming off vastly different games.
K-State is three days removed from knocking off Oklahoma State 96-88 on the road, a high-scoring game that saw five Wildcats score in double figures, led by Barry Brown’s 22. The teams nearly equaled their last meeting’s score in Stillwater by halftime on Wednesday.
West Virginia, on the other hand, will enter off an overtime defeat to Oklahoma — yes, the team K-State beat by 11 earlier this month — in Morgantown, W. Va. Considering that the Sooners stand in the bottom third of the conference, this outcome seems perplexing at surface level, but Oklahoma star guard Jordan Woodard had returned from injury.
Woodard tallied 20 points and five assists in Oklahoma’s 89-87 win, but the Sooners beat the Mountaineers by beating their press: Oklahoma turned it over just 12 times.
By comparison, West Virginia forced Baylor into 29 when the Mountaineers knocked off the then-No. 1 Bears Jan. 10.
That said, it’s fair to presume the Mountaineers will walk into Bramlage an incensed team, and they probably have been since the loss to Oklahoma.
The question will be whether K-State’s momentum from its win will trump the frustration West Virginia will try to take out on the Wildcats. There are reasons to believe both trains of thought.
On one hand, the Wildcats remain the only Big 12 team featuring five players scoring in double figures. Brown leads the pack with 12.7 points per game, while D.J. Johnson — who scored 18 against the Cowboys — and Wesley Iwundu both average better than 12 points per game.
And after a road win in a venue they have won just twice in since 1993, the Wildcats are likely brimming with confidence. After all, they connected on a gaudy 56.3 percent of their shots on Wednesday, as well as seven 3-pointers.
On West Virginia’s side, it’s hard to mention the Mountaineers without lauding their infamous full-court press in the same breath. They rank first by a mile in the Big 12 in turnover margin with a +12.5 mark (for reference, K-State ranks third with a +3.1 mark). West Virginia’s defense traps victims into silly turnovers, opening the door for transition baskets and the frenetic pace off which the Mountaineers feed.
By the same token, though, West Virginia stands at the top of the Big 12 scoring rankings, tallying 89 points per game. The only problem? It has failed to eclipse that 89-point mark in all three of its losses this season.
The obvious conclusion here is that K-State can give itself a chance to win Saturday if it vamps up its defense. The Wildcats surrender just 63.8 points per game, good for second in the league, so they have the capability. But they’ll need to be sharp on defense, and if the need arises, finish Saturday’s game with gusto.
K-State finished well in Wednesday’s win over Oklahoma State — Iwundu hit a pair of free throws and Xavier Sneed threw down a pair of dunks to ice things — but the Wildcats have struggled mightily in the final minutes of three of its four losses. There was the Maryland loss, a 69-68 defeat, then the 90-88 loss to Kansas that will live in infamy, then the 66-65 loss to Texas Tech, the latter of which only gave doubters more confidence to shower K-State coach Bruce Weber with invective.
But the win over the Cowboys gave the Wildcats some breathing room, confidence they so desperately needed heading into Saturday’s tilt with vaunted West Virginia.
But the Mountaineers will undoubtedly blitz K-State with their press — they use it invariably. The Wildcats haven’t faced anything like it so far.
And K-State has the momentum and home-court advantage on its side.
Saturday’s outcome will likely be a result of one of the two.