University of Kansas

It’s gut-check time for Kansas against Big 12’s top dog, West Virginia

West Virginia guard Jaysean Paige (5) drove to the basket defended by Kansas forward Perry Ellis (34) when the Mountaineers beat the Jayhawks 74-63 on Jan. 12 in Morgantown, W.Va. On Tuesday night, the Mountaineers, now leading the Big 12, play the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence.
West Virginia guard Jaysean Paige (5) drove to the basket defended by Kansas forward Perry Ellis (34) when the Mountaineers beat the Jayhawks 74-63 on Jan. 12 in Morgantown, W.Va. On Tuesday night, the Mountaineers, now leading the Big 12, play the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. The Associated Press

When Kansas and West Virginia last met, the Jayhawks had just been voted the nation’s top-ranked team for the second straight week, had won 13 straight and opened Big 12 play with an epic three-overtime triumph over Oklahoma and a road victory at Texas Tech.

For Tuesday’s rematch at Allen Fieldhouse, West Virginia holds the upper hand, at least in the Big 12 standings.

At 8-2, the Mountaineers top the league, leading Oklahoma by a half-game following its 63-60 win over Texas and Kansas by one game.

West Virginia and Kansas own the same overall record at 19-4 and Kansas is ranked higher in the wire service polls — they’re sixth and 10th in both — but West Virginia can make a major statement by stealing a road contest.

The game is at 6 p.m. on ESPN2.

As Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins put it, “The dog with the bone is always in danger.”

And West Virginia is the top dog entering this one.

But the Jayhawks can make a stand. After meeting the Mountaineers, Kansas travels to third-ranked Oklahoma on Saturday. From a quality of opponent standpoint, it’s the biggest week of the season, and it also could go a long way in shaping the Jayhawks’ path to a 12th straight Big 12 title.

“It’s huge,” junior forward Landen Lucas said. “We’ve put ourselves in a good position. We know how important it is, and we know what’s on the line.”

For Kansas, reversing fortune with the Mountaineers from earlier this season starts with an improvement in handling the Mountaineers’ pressure and trapping.

The sloppy Jayhawks committed a season-high 22 turnovers in the Mountaineers’ 74-63 victory on Jan. 12 in Morgantown. Point guard Frank Mason had a season-high seven after committing a total of five in four previous games against the Mountaineers.

“They play so hard. They’re so competitive,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “They basically out-toughed us.”

West Virginia relies on its pressure defense and rebounding ability from all five positions to offset a middling team field-goal percentage.

The Mountaineers ranked fifth in the Big 12 in overall shooting at 46.1 percent and eighth in three-point shooting at 31.7 percent. But they average 81 points per game by excelling in transition and at second-chance opportunities. They lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage at 42.3.

“They’re the best at keeping balls alive, they’re the best at stealing extra possessions,” Self said. “Everybody talks about their press and pressure, which is terrific but it’s not just beating the press but making them pay for pressing.

“We didn’t do that at all the first time. We got numbers a few times and didn’t make them pay at all.”

Rebounding is an encouraging sign for Kansas. The Jayhawks lost the board battle by 15 in their 77-59 victory over Kansas State last Wednesday, then emphasized the shortcoming in practice before Saturday’s 75-56 win at TCU and outrebounded the Horned Frogs by 21.

“I thought we rebounded like men,” Self said.

Perry Ellis finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, and since losing three of five — a skid that started with the West Virginia loss — Kansas has won three straight and is starting to get that familiar feeling.

“Every year I feel like there’s been a gut-check time,” Lucas said. “This is what separates those teams that win the championship from those that don’t.”

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff

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