No. 2 West Virginia puts streak on line at No. 8 Texas Tech (Jan 13, 2018)
Second-ranked West Virginia takes a 15-game winning streak and its unblemished record in the Big 12 Conference on the road for a test at No. 8 Texas Tech on Saturday.
There aren't many hospitable road trips in the Big 12 and the Mountaineers certainly know Lubbock, Texas, isn't an easy place to win.
An unranked Texas Tech team handed then-No. 7 West Virginia a one-point overtime loss at United Supermarkets Arena last season. Now the Red Raiders find themselves ranked in the top 10 with a chance to regain a share of the conference lead.
But at least West Virginia (15-1, 4-0 Big 12) can take comfort in having one of its top assets back in the lineup. Forward Esa Ahmad missed the first 16 games of the season on NCAA suspension for undisclosed reasons. The NCAA cleared Ahmad, who averaged 11.3 points as a sophomore last season, to play starting with Saturday's game.
Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said after his team's win over Baylor on Tuesday that he assumes Ahmad will have an impact on his first game back and find his rhythm very soon. But Huggins also said he's not certain Ahmad will immediately be in good game shape.
"I worry about his conditioning," Huggins said. "He's practiced with us, you know, and he really hasn't practiced with the guys who played the most. He's played against those guys."
Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said his team will prepare for Ahmad to play his usual allotment of minutes. However, the Red Raiders coach clearly thinks the specifics of the Mountaineers' rotation is secondary to their overall mindset.
"Teams have identities and coaches have things they believe in," Beard said. "With West Virginia, it starts with their toughness. In a lot of ways, they have the kind of program that we're going to continue to try to build."
Other than West Virginia, Texas Tech has received perhaps more acclaim for its defense than any team in the Big 12 in this campaign. The Red Raiders have held opponents to 60.2 points per game, ranking fifth nationally.
That helped Texas Tech (14-2, 3-1) win eight straight games during December and January, including three over ranked opponents and its first three Big 12 contests.
Oklahoma snapped the Red Raiders' winning streak on Tuesday. But Texas Tech still managed to lead 31-29 at the half after successfully harassing the high-scoring Sooners for 20 minutes.
"We just want to be a team that embraces defense," Beard said. "It's something that we believe in. We think you've got to be a team that defends. We start in the recruiting process."
Another of the Red Raiders' strengths has been depth -- they have liberally distributed minutes among a 10-man rotation. That could be limited against West Virginia, though, as forward Zach Smith missed Tuesday's game with a left ankle sprain and forward Justin Gray was limited with tightness in his knee. Beard said both players are being evaluated on a day-to-day basis.
Beard has been adamant about Texas Tech increasing its home-court advantage through crowd support. The Red Raiders have drawn more than 12,000 fans for each of their two home games in Big 12 play and expect another big gathering against No. 2 West Virginia.
However, the Texas Tech coach was careful not to place too much emphasis on the result versus the Mountaineers.
"I told the guys yesterday, 'This isn't about winning the game Saturday,'" Beard said. "'This isn't a must win. You're in an 18-round fight. What's must is that we play well and we give ourselves a chance to win.'"