NCAA Chances

WVU head coach Bob Huggins, quite correctly, says that West Virginia's current RPI and strength of schedule ratings should get it into the NCAA tournament. "All we have to do is win some games," the head man has said more than once. That, however, will be the trick with a loaded schedule facing the Mountaineers down the stretch.

Bob Huggins has been quite clear in saying that his team's NCAA tournament standing is favorable at the moment. What he doesn't say (again, understandably so) is that his team has to win at least a couple more games in the regular season in order to put itself in consideration for an at-large selection. A season-ending losing streak, or a below .500 regular season record in the league, could put that status in jeopardy.

With just five league games remaining and a 7-6 conference mark, the Mountaineers are jammed up in the middle of the Big East standings, and could finish anywhere from second to fourteenth. That's not the important factor at this point, however. West Virginia needs to get wins to go along with its high rankings and lock up that bid, and with a few days before its next game against Notre Dame, this is as good a time as any to examine the pluses and minuses of WVU's candidacy.

The first big positive, RPI, isn't likely to slide a great deal down the stretch, even if WVU drops three or four more games. Pitt (RPI – 6), Notre Dame (9), UConn (13), Louisville (23) will all bolster West Virginia' mark, so this should remain a strength come Selection Sunday.

The second, strength of schedule, is also not going anywhere. West Virginia's current ranking (sixth nationally) will only benefit with the schedule over the next couple of weeks, and even losses by some of those foes won't have a huge impact on the overall number.

Perception is also on West Virginia's side this year, and while that's not supposed to be a part of the selection process, the fact remains that the selection committee is made up of humans that make the final choices. Although they are admittedly backed by reams of computer analysis, the conclusions that are drawn from that data still go through the filter of the human mind, and that filter can gather other bits of data. Chief among those this year is the strength of the Big East conference, which includes only three teams that aren't competitive with the other teams in the league. With 11 teams that could remain in the NCAA hunt through the league tournament, selectors are likely to look more favorably on a mid-pack team from the Big East than one from the ACC, SEC or Big Ten.

There's one more big plus for West Virginia as it strives to differentiate itself from the pack of potential bubble teams – it doesn't have any bad losses to date. Although the Mountaineers have nine setbacks this year, none of them have come to a team outside the Top 100 of the RPI, and five of them have come to schools in the RPI Top 25.

Now, the negatives. The biggest one for West Virginia is its win total, which currently stands at 16. Among the RPI top 44 only St. John's and Tennessee with 15, have fewer. While the 20-win total is no longer a standard for making the tournament, the failure to reach that win total could well be held against a team, and the Mountaineers will have to improve its play down the stretch in order to reach that plateau.

Also working against WVU, although perhaps not as much as in previous years, is its record in its last 12 games. Right now, the Mountaineers are 7-5 over that stretch, but that mark will worsen if they can't get four wins in its final five. The importance of a good record over the last dozen games has been lessened somewhat in recent years with the realization that schedules can be backloaded (as indeed West Virginia's is) but it's still a concern, especially if WVU is among the final few teams being considered for at-large bids.

WVU also doesn't have much in the way of signature league wins to bolster its resume. It has defeated just one team currently above it in the Big East standings (Georgetown). It has four more chances to do so in the regular season, and needs to take advantage of at least one, and perhaps two, of those opportunities to really bolster its resume. It also can't afford to drop its road trip to Rutgers, as that would be a very damaging loss that would go far beyond just another tick mark in wrong column.

There are, however, several out of conference wins that bolster the Mountaineers' standings in several ways. Victories over Purdue and Vanderbilt, (both Top 15 in the RPI) and Cleveland State (38) help the Mountaineers in that regard, as well as in out of conference breakdowns of the ratings.

Finally, there's the wild card in all of this – the Big East tournament. A couple of wins in New York could be the final push over the top that many teams, including West Virginia, may still need in the days before Selection Sunday. For some, missing out on a first round bye and getting the chance for an extra win, even coming against a team at the bottom of the league standings, could be a blessing in disguise.

So, what does WVU need to do in its final five regular season games to lock up a bid? Although it might seem shaky, a 9-9 league record, given the difficulty of the Big East and WVU's gaudy RPI and SOS numbers should be enough. Of course, that would make for some very nervous moments leading up to the Big East tournament, where another win or two would be required to remove all doubt from the process. To really be safe prior to heading for New York, West Virginia needs to go 3-2 in its final five. As Huggins says, all it needs to do is win.


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