West Virginia Is Where No. 1s Go to Die as Mountaineers Rout Top-Ranked Baylor

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 10, 2017

Esa Ahmad (23) and Tarik Phillip (12) celebrate a blowout win over No. 1 Baylor.
Esa Ahmad (23) and Tarik Phillip (12) celebrate a blowout win over No. 1 Baylor.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

For the second consecutive week, the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 took an undefeated record into a hostile environment and emerged with an L, as the No. 10 West Virginia Mountaineers knocked off the No. 1 Baylor Bears in Morgantown by a score of 89-68 Tuesday night.

Whatever you do, though, don't call it an upset.

West Virginia was the lower-ranked team, sure, but the Mountaineers were 5.5-point favorites, according to OddsShark.com. Moreover, KenPom.com projected West Virginia to win 72-67, giving Baylor only a 31 percent chance of winning.

But it only took a few possessions for 31 percent to feel overly optimistic, as Press Virginia had its way with the Bears.

In the first six minutes, Baylor committed nine turnovers of nearly every possible varietytraveling, stepping out of bounds, three-second violation, live-ball steals and balls thrown out of bounds. The only things missing were offensive fouls and shot-clock violations. The Bears nearly committed the latter on the first possession of the game and barely possessed the ball long enough to commit the former.

By the time the final buzzer sounded, it was the worst margin of defeat by a No. 1 team since the Duke Blue Devils lost by 27 to the Miami Hurricanes four seasons ago. It's the eighth-worst loss by a No. 1-ranked team dating back to the 1949-50 season, according to Sports Reference.

This isn't to say the Bears are a bunch of overrated frauds. Far from it. They earned their ranking by putting together what still stands as arguably the nation's best NCAA tournament resume. And it's worth noting that each of the six teams that suffered the worst losses by a No. 1 team still made it at least to the Elite Eight during those respective seasons.

If you're trying to write off Baylor's 2017 championship dreams because of this one game, try again.

The Bears just had the misfortune of drawing their worst possible matchup less than 36 hours after ascending to the top of the AP poll for the first time in program history.

Baylor hadn't displayed any glaring weaknesses during its 15-0 start, but its two least strong areas this season had been turnovers and rebounding. You could not pick a worse combination to take into a rock fight with West Virginia. 

The Mountaineers entered the game with an average turnover margin of plus-13.7, leading the nation by a laughable margin in that category, according to NCAA.com. Their defensive turnover percentage of 32.8 was more than two full percentage points higher than any other team has posted in the KenPom eraand that's certain to increase after forcing 29 Baylor turnovers. And on the rebounding front, West Virginia came into Tuesday's matchup ranked fifth in the nation in offensive rebound percentage.

Even if the game was played at a neutral site, West Virginia likely would have been favored. Forcing the Bears to face their nightmare opponent in Morgantown was a bridge too far.

If the defensive pressure on the court isn't enough, the fans in Morgantown know how to rattle opponents.
If the defensive pressure on the court isn't enough, the fans in Morgantown know how to rattle opponents.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Over the past two-plus seasons, Phog Allen Fieldhouse (Kansas) and Cameron Indoor Stadium (Duke) might be the only venues more challenging for opposing teams than WVU Coliseum. Since the start of 2014-15, Press Virginia is 35-5 at home with an average margin of victory of 21.1 points. Granted, that includes a lot of blowouts of nonconference cupcakes, but even in Big 12 play, the Mountaineers are 16-4, with 11 of those victories coming by a double-digit margin.

One of those blowout wins came almost exactly one year ago on Jan. 12, 2016, when they beat the then-No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks by an 11-point margin. They forced 22 turnovers and corralled 32 percent of their own misses, which is roughly the same combo they used to knock off Baylor.

Ironically, Baylor delivered West Virginia's worst home loss of the past few seasons, thumping the Mountaineers 87-69 in February 2015. The Bears committed 19 turnovers and allowed West Virginia to grab 18 offensive rebounds, but they shot 61 percent from two-point range while the Mountaineers couldn't buy a field goal.

That's where West Virginia has changed the most since adopting this Press Virginia scheme. Two years ago, if the Mountaineers didn't score in transition, they didn't score much at all. If they didn't turn opponents over, their half-court defense offered little resistance. This time around, they were the ones blocking shots (six of them), and they were the ones making shots (45.0 percent from three-point range).

Back when Press Virginia first began, it was arguably a gimmick head coach Bob Huggins used to compensate for a lack of talent. They couldn't outshoot you or outjump you, but doggone it, they were going to outwork you. But this is now a team that can legitimately play half-court basketball and just so happens to also play the best full-court defense we've seen in decades.

If you hadn't been taking West Virginia seriously as a national championship threat before this game, there's no time like the present to correct that error in judgment.

Now that Baylor has fallen, the next team up for the top spot would seem to be No. 2 Kansas. The Jayhawks have a few hurdles to clear before Jan. 24 (at Oklahoma, vs. Oklahoma State, at Iowa State, vs. Texas), but they could well carry the No. 1 ranking into West Virginia in two weeks' time.

Could the Mountaineers knock off a third No. 1-ranked team in a span of less than 13 months?

Better question: Would that be enough to get West Virginia to No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time since 1958?

That might be the only way to ensure the top-ranked team doesn't lose a road game in Morgantown.

 

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of KenPom.com and Sports Reference

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.