Having had a number next to their name for two weeks, the No. 22 West Virginia Mountaineers are yet to face an opponent with a similar distinction — but that will change when they face the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes.
With new additions and other young players making up the majority of their squad, this is a first for almost every one of Bob Huggins’s players this year.
“It’s always an honor to play somebody that’s ranked,” said WVU guard Taz Sherman. “Like, we’re ranked, but they’re ranked, they’re ranked higher. So it’s always a good opportunity to play somebody like Ohio State.”
The Buckeyes and the Mountaineers face one another for the 17th time in history, a series which Ohio State leads 9-7. The last matchup, a 2010 ranked clash, saw No. 11 West Virginia take a narrow victory over No. 21 Ohio State at the WVU Coliseum.
Players, coaches and a conference affiliation have all changed in the time since, but both programs are again fielding strong teams after spending most of last season outside of the top 25. Likewise, both squads have just one loss entering this contest, as WVU fell to St. John’s at Madison Square Garden and OSU lost on the road to Minnesota.
The rebounding battle
This tilt could very well be decided on the boards. Both teams are top-20 nationally in rebounding margin (West Virginia’s +9 margin and Ohio State’s +8.58 margin rank them 16 and 18 respectively). Plus, the Buckeyes’ only loss coincided with their worst rebounding performance of the season, where they were outrebounded 40-28 at the hands of the Golden Gophers.
If the Buckeyes want to prevent another shoddy performance on the boards, they will need to stop WVU’s Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe, the top two rebounders in the Big 12 and a couple of budding young stars for the Mountaineers.
Ohio State’s rebounding is led by juniors Kaleb Wesson (9 rebounds per game) and Kyle Young (6.4 per game). Beyond them, the Buckeyes’ boards are spread across their squad with their next-highest rebounder being the 6-6 freshman forward E.J. Liddell (4.1 per game).
Figuring out the WVU offense
West Virginia has struggled at times to get an offensive groove, especially in their recent win over Youngstown State. The youthful Mountaineers still seem to be figuring out their chemistry on the court, as their strong frontcourt is working on balancing the scoring load with a new, capable backcourt.
“I’m trying to figure out how my sharpshooters like to play,” Culver said after their last win. “I’ve figured out that Taz [Sherman], he likes to sit in the corner a little bit.”
That knowledge, he says, allowed him to find the open guard for the shot — without even seeing him first.
“Being blessed with shooters like that day-in and day-out,” Culver continued, “any big man would be happy and successful.”
Still, the brunt of the Mountaineer offense comes from inside. Three of their top four scorers (Culver, Tshiebwe and Emmitt Matthews, Jr.) are forwards. The fourth is Jermaine Haley, a 6-7 guard who has taken just 5 three-pointers all season.
That’s how Bob Huggins likes his offense. When the Mountaineers had struggles offensively earlier in the season, much of his concerns were with his guards’ tendency to dribble the ball rather than pass it inside.
“They can do some things down there,” he said after their win over Austin Peay. “We’ve got to reward them.”
The dynamic Buckeye attack
The Buckeyes boast a dynamic offense that can score from all over the floor. While the 6-9, 270-pound Wesson is their leading rebounder inside, his 39 three-point attempts are the second-most on the team — and he’s made 46 percent of them. This contributes to his being the leading scorer on the team with 13.9 points per game.
For many teams, such a player poses a matchup nightmare. But Bob Huggins points out that his frontcourt has spent much of their season so far guarding players that are smaller and faster than them.
“I think it’s good for our bigs. I think it’s good for Derek,” he said. “Derek’s been out there running around chasing 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4 guys, and that’s good for Derek. Derek’s got a world of ability that he hasn’t tapped into yet.”
Beyond Wesson, the Buckeyes boast a stout perimeter attack, making an average of 9.3 shots from deep at a 40-percent clip. Duane Washington Jr. has taken and made the most for OSU, sinking a staggering 50-percent of his three-pointers in 10 games played.
Where to watch
The No. 22 Mountaineers and No. 2 Buckeyes tip off in Cleveland at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse at noon on Dec. 29. The contest will be broadcast on FOX Sports 1 and on the FOX Sports GO app.
West Virginia Illustrated will be in “The ‘Land” for the matchup, providing live updates on WVIllustrated.com and our social media pages. Nick Farrell and Anjelica Trinone will have the highlights after the final buzzer on your local Nexstar stations as well as on WVIllustrated.com.