No. 2 WVU facing Texas Tech

Photos courtesy of West Virginia University Junior Esa Ahmad is returning to WVU’s lineup after being suspended the first 16 games of the year.

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia has fared pretty well without one of the best small forwards in the Big 12. Now, we’re going to see how things go with him.

Junior Esa Ahmad, forced to sit out the first 16 games of the season because of an NCAA-imposed suspension, will be back in uniform for the Mountaineers’ top-10 showdown at eighth-ranked Texas Tech today. A 2 p.m. tipoff is set for the game, to be televised nationally on ESPN.

After losing to Texas A&M, 88-65, in the season opener in Germany, West Virginia has not lost since, despite trailing at some point in every single game with the exception of the win at Pitt.

The Mountaineers are 15-1 overall, 4-0 in the Big 12, and are hoping Ahmad’s addition can add to an already potent frontcourt that includes emerging forwards Sagaba Konate, Lamont West and Wesley Harris.

If Ahmad can give West Virginia this year what he did last season, that’s 11.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, plus 31 steals and 21 blocks.

Coach Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers have won 15 games straight.

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins calls him the best rebounding small forward in the Big 12.

“It’s not even close,” he said.

Ahmad has been practicing with the team while sitting out, and he should be well-adjusted when he returns to the floor.

“He’s played well in practice is all I know,” Huggins said. “I worry about his conditioning. He’s practiced with us, but he really hasn’t practiced with the guys who played the most; he’s played against those guys.

“The think I like the most about Esa is he knows how to play. He may not be at the top of his game come Saturday, but it won’t be long after that he will be,” Huggins added.

Getting a player of Ahmad’s caliber couldn’t come at a better time for the second-ranked Mountaineers, facing a fired-up, 14-2 Red Raiders team in Lubbock. Texas Tech is promoting the game as a “Red Out” with fans going to 15,000-seat United Supermarkets Arena encouraged to wear red.

“We’re going to have the bull’s-eye on our back, but that’s what you play for,” Huggins said Thursday. “You work like crazy to get to the point where everybody is excited about playing you. When we came into this league, I don’t think anybody even really knew who we were. And the way we played early on, they didn’t need to, really.”

That’s certainly not the case today.

West Virginia sits alone at the top of the Big 12 standings, while the Red Raiders are one of three teams right behind the Mountaineers at 3-1.

The last two games West Virginia has played in Lubbock have been down-to-the-wire affairs, WVU needed a last-second basket from Tarik Phillip to win in 2016 before losing in overtime there last year.

If you recall, the Mountaineers struggled to stop Texas Tech’s dribble drives and also sent the Red Raiders to the free throw line 30 times. West Virginia had a seven-point lead early in the second half but couldn’t make its free throws. That opened the door for Texas Tech to eventually win the game in overtime on Anthony Livingston’s 3 with six seconds left.

The rematch in Morgantown also required two sessions to decide, with West Virginia outlasting the Red Raiders 83-74.

Point guard Keenan Evans’ 3 with five seconds left sent the game into overtime after WVU went through a six-minute field goal drought at the end of regulation.

Once again, missed free throws by the Mountaineers contributed to the two overtime periods.

Evans, guards Niem Stevenson and Justin Gray and athletic 6-foot-8-inch forward Zach Smith are back this year. However, Smith has been slowed by a foot injury that kept him out of Tuesday night’s Oklahoma game, a Red Raider loss.

Texas Tech used a four-guard lineup with outstanding freshman Zhaire Smith joining Gray, Stevenson and Evans in the starting five.

Six-nine junior center Norense Odiase was the fifth starter against the Sooners.

Evans was the only Texas Tech player to reach double figures in the 75-65 loss to Oklahoma with 19. He is averaging a team-best 17.3 points per game and is shooting 49.2 percent from the floor.

“Keenan Evans is terrific at the point,” Huggins said. “He makes huge plays for them.”

Huggins is also very impressed with Tech’s two freshmen, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver, both 6-5. Smith is the team’s second-leading scorer with an average of 10.4 points per game while shooting a sizzling 61.2 percent from the floor.

Culver is third, averaging 10.3 points with a team-high-tying 23 3s.

“I don’t know who has two better freshmen,” he said. “There might be two as good, but I don’t think anybody has two better freshmen than their freshmen.

“They play like seniors,” he added. “That’s the most impressive thing. They made big shots at Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse and that’s not easy to do. They can both shoot it. They can bounce it. They’re both extremely athletic. They’re really, really good and I think Chris (Beard) has done a great job of mixing them in with the older guys.”

Huggins is expecting another down-to-the-wire finish on Saturday.

“We’re going to have close games,” he said. “There are not going to be very many routs, if any, in this league. It’s a hard league.”

— John Antonik,