‘We need the will to win’: West Virginia to battle Baylor with both teams pursuing first Big 12 victory

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia and Baylor are each looking to avoid an 0-4 start in Big 12 play when the two teams battle at 7 p.m. Wednesday inside the WVU Coliseum.

That’s one of several intriguing storylines in the matchup, which will air on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.

“You want to put your finger on one thing that we need the most, we need the will to win,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins says.

The fourth conference contest for both teams also marks the return of Jalen Bridges to Morgantown. 

Bridges, a 2019 graduate of Fairmont Senior and recipient of the Bill Evans Award as West Virginia’s top high school basketball player, spent three seasons at WVU, two of which he played extensively in after redshirting. He then opted to transfer to Baylor ahead of his junior campaign and has started all 15 games for the Bears (10-5, 0-3). 

The 6-foot-7 swingman is averaging 8.9 points and has had far more success inside the 3-point line than from long range. Bridges is shooting 48 percent in all, though he’s made 37-of-52 two-point attempts and 11 of 48 from deep.

Jan 7, 2023; Waco, Texas, USA; Kansas State Wildcats forward Nae’Qwan Tomlin (35) and Baylor Bears forward Jalen Bridges (11) chase a loose ball during the first half at Ferrell Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Huggins, however, isn’t making much of Bridges’ return, which marks the first time he will oppose one of his former West Virginia players since a December 2019 matchup with D’Angelo Hunter and Nicholls State. 

“Not unless you make it one,” Huggins said when asked if Bridges’ return was significant. “For as long as I can remember, they have relied on their guards. Their guards take the vast majority of their shots. [WVU assistant coaches Ron Everhart and Larry Harrison] have looked at it differently. I’m trying to figure out how we slow those guards down.”

Each of the Bears’ top scorers comes from the backcourt in 6-4 freshman Keyonte George (16.8), 6-3 senior Adam Flagler (16.7) and 6-1 junior LJ Cryer (13.8). The aforementioned trio combines for nearly 60 percent of Baylor’s point production.

Flagler has been the most efficient of the three and is shooting 47 percentand better than 48 percent (41 for 85) on 3-pointers.

Cryer missed three games earlier this season due to an injury, but he’s played in each of the last two, though he was held to four points Saturday in an overtime loss to Kansas State.

Like West Virginia, the Bears have squandered prime opportunities in two of their three Big 12 games. Following a 77-62 loss at Iowa State in a game that Cryer missed to start Big 12 play, the Bears lost to TCU 88-87, before coming up short against the Wildcats, 97-95.

Baylor does boast the second-best scoring offense among Big 12 teams with an average of 80.9 points and the Bears lead the league with 143 triples.

“They’re the same. They make a lot of shots,” Huggins said. “They shoot it deep, drive it and everything pretty much starts with a ball screen. It hasn’t changed much.”

The Mountaineers (10-5, 0-3) missed out on two chances for a Big 12 win to start league play when they lost 82-76 in overtime at Kansas State on New Year’s Eve and then fell at Oklahoma State two days later, 67-60.

Most recently, WVU dropped its first home game of the season Saturday to Kansas, 76-62.

While Huggins’ team is averaging better than 78 points, that number has  dropped to 66 in three conference games, and the Mountaineers are shooting a conference-worst 37.8 percent within Big 12 play.

“We haven’t ran in transition,” Huggins said. “Quite frankly, we haven’t made shots. Our shooting percentage has taken a drastic step down.” 

Point guard Kedrian Johnson missed the loss to the Jayhawks with a concussion and Huggins wasn’t definitive one way or another as to whether Johnson will return to face the Bears.

“I don’t know,” Huggins said when asked if Johnson remained in concussion protocol. “He went a little bit yesterday and we’ll see what he does today.”

Guard Erik Stevenson leads the Mountaineers with an average of 14 points, but he’s coming off a 4 for 19 showing against KU and has made 14-of-41 shots in three Big 12 games.

Forwards Tre Mitchell (13.4) and Emmitt Matthews Jr. (10.7) are the Mountaineers’ other double-figure scorers, while guard Joe Toussaint averages 9.7. Toussaint made his first start at WVU against Kansas in place of Johnson.

Post player Jimmy Bell Jr. is averaging 6.3 points, but was limited to 15 minutes — his fewest since late November — against Kansas after suffering an injury to his chest.

“That injury came at the wrong time, but it’s something that comes with sports,” Bell said. “I was frustrated.

“Had to catch my wind. I was having a hard time breathing.”

With the 0-3 start in league play, Bell believes the Mountaineers “need to get their mojo back” to help restore confidence.

“We’re fighting to get that first win,” Bell said. “It’s a confidence thing to get to where we were in the beginning of the season.”

The Bears have won six of the last seven matchups with the Mountaineers, including three straight.

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