Cancun Challenge preview: Mountaineers shoot to keep undefeated record in Mexico

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(Photo by Nick Farrell.)

West Virginia men’s basketball is headed to sunny Cancun to put their undefeated record on the line in the Cancun Challenge.

The Mountaineers (5-0) have already been victorious in two contests in the Cancun Challenge, besting Northern Colorado and Boston University at the WVU Coliseum. Now they head to a neutral court to face the Northern Iowa Panthers, followed by a date with either South Carolina or Wichita State in the competition’s finals.

Oscar Tshiebwe has had a strong start to his Mountaineer career, sitting as the top Big 12 rebounder in his four games with 9.8 per outing. He logged a double-double vs. Boston U with 21 points and 10 rebounds, his second of the season after his 20-point, 17-rebound outing in the Backyard Brawl.

Jermaine Haley has also emerged as a statistical leader for the Mountaineers. The guard logged his first double-double against Northern Colorado, and leads the team in scoring with 12.8 points per game.

The duo are paving the way for West Virginia to once again be one of the top rebounding teams in their league. The Mountaineers are second in the Big 12 on the glass, grabbing 42.3 rebounds per game. They lead the conference in offensive rebounds, averaging 13.8 boards per outing.

WVU hoops is leaving the country for the third time in program history, and their second trip to the Cancun Challenge. The Mountaineers made their first appearance in the competition in 2013, falling to Wisconsin in the finals. The next time they’d head overseas would be in 2017 for the Armed Forces Classic, which saw the 11th-ranked Mountaineers fall to No. 25 Texas A&M at Rammstein Air Force Base in Germany.

West Virginia is joined by these teams in this year’s Cancun Challenge:

Northern Iowa Panthers

  • Head cach: Ben Jacobson (14th year)
  • Record: 6-1
  • Last year: 16-18 (9-9 MVC); lost in second round of MVC Tournament

As most of the Panthers’ minutes are given to upperclassmen, UNI has lots of experience on their squad. Their top contributors, including junior Trae Berhow and sophomore AJ Green, were all major pieces for Coach Ben Jacobson a year ago — and they have made marked improvements over their disappointing 2018-19 campaign.

The Panthers are scoring 73.5 points per game — an 8.3-point improvement over last season — and they’re outscoring opponents by 12.3 points per game.

They are hoping to put together their first winning season since 2015-16 — which also happens to be the last time they made it to the NCAA Tournament.

South Carolina Gamecocks

  • Head coach: Frank Martin (8th year)
  • Record: 4-2
  • Last year: 16-16 (11-7 SEC); lost first round of SEC Tournament

The Gamecocks are off to a better start this year than they were in 2018, although they have already taken a home loss to the Boston Terriers in their opening Cancun Challenge matchup.

Even though many of the Gamecocks’ main contributors from last season departed after the season, Frank Martin did not have much to replace heading into 2019. Sophomore AJ Lawson was one of the team’s top scorers last year, and he sits at the top of this year’s list averaging 17.2 points per game. South Carolina has also gotten a boost from transfer Jair Bolden after he had to sit last season out.

The Gamecocks have earned commanding victories over their opponents up until the start of the Cancun Challenge, winning their first four games by an average margin of 30 points. Their two Cancun Challenge matchups have been much closer, including the 78-70 loss to Boston U and a 74-69 win over Gardner-Webb.

Wichita State Shockers

  • Head coach: Gregg Marshall (13th year)
  • Record: 6-0
  • Last year: 22-15 (10-8 AAC); lost in NIT semifinals

After missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven seasons, Gregg Marshall and the Shockers are looking to make their return to the Big Dance. Before that all goes down, they have to make it through the Cancun Challenge.

With the exception of their 6-point survival over Texas Southern, the Shockers are back to dominating their early opponents. Their five victories are by an average margin of 18.4 points, and their defense is the most stout in the American Athletic Conference holding teams to just 58 points per game.

Five Shockers average double figures, four of which are underclassmen. It’s all led, though, by junior Trey Wade in his first season with Wichita State, dropping 12 points per game.

The Shockers have some of the best ball movement in their conference, and they’re knocking down their shots on the other end. They are second in the AAC with 16.6 assists per game, with 8.6 three pointers to go along with them at a 36 percent clip.

All Cancun Challenge games will be broadcast on the CBS Sports Network. WVU tips off against Northern Iowa at 8:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, and at either 6 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday.

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