Looking Ahead

The ever-changing fortunes of West Virginia's basketball team, combined with those the Mountaineers are battling for post-season standing and status, make it difficult to assess exactly what the Mountaineers need to do in order to lock up an NCAA tournament bid.

That process is made even more difficult with the emotional involvement fans have with the team as well as with the analysis offered by some web sties, which can be confusing and often inaccurate. That's why, when asked about the process, WVU Bob Huggins states it simply: "We just need to win some games."

That is, of course, 100% valid, but which games? And how many? Just where does WVU stand in its pursuit of an NCAA bid?

As we traveled to Pittsburgh last Thursday, I opined that WVU needed to win four of its last five regular season games, plus one in the Big East tournament, to securely lock up a bid. Greg Hunter and Patrick Southern thought I was being a bit too cautious, and believed that only three wins out of the last five league games would put the Mountaineers in. They may be right, but I can tell you that I'd feel much more confident with 20 total wins, and a 10-8 league record, going into the tournament than 19 and 9-9. I understand that 20 wins isn't a magic number of any sort, and doesn't carry any weight with the NCAA Selection committee. However, league record is one factor that's looked at, and a winning league record, along with WVU's outstanding strength of schedule and solid RPI, would certainly be enough to get the Mountaineers in.

Another reason to get to ten league wins? Getting a bye in the Big East tournament. WVU currently stands at eighth place in the league with a 7-7 mark, but trails both Louisville and Cincinnati by two games. The Cards own the tiebreaker over WVU, meaning UofL would have to lose three more games than West Virginia down the stretch for the Mountaineers to pass them in the league standings. The reverse is true of Cincinnati, however, so a two game swing would put WVU above the Bearcats in tournament seeding. The Mountaineers have just a half-game lead over Seton Hall (who also owns the head to head tiebreaker) so the Mountaineers must win one more game than the Pirates down the stretch to stay ahead of them in the league standings. As we have seen recently, playing in the first round in the Big East tournament isn't a death knell for advancing, but WVU is neither a veteran nor a deep squad, so starting play on Wednesday rather than Tuesday might not be a bad thing.

As WVU plays out the final two weeks of the Big East season, here are some other items to keep in mind as you eyeball the daily RPIs and forecasts:

1) The emphasis on play down the stretch (last ten games) is now almost non-existent: The committee has finally figured out that teams don't control when they play league opponents, so it's not fair to penalize squads that have tough closing stretches. For example, should a team in the Big East that gets Pitt, St. John's, Providence and Villanova in the final two weeks get credit for wins, while a squad that faces Marquette, Notre Dame, Louisville and Syracuse gets dinged? Of course not – so don't worry a great deal about those "Last Ten Games" stats.

2) Bad losses can hurt – a lot. Losses to teams outside the RPI Top 100 might not always be killers, but get more than one and their weight can accumulate, especially when comparing one team to another. West Virginia has one right now, to St. John's. Down the stretch, WVU can't lose to DePaul. It also needs Kent State (currently #93) to keep winning, and stay above the 100 mark. A Pitt collapse (#81) wouldn't help either.

3) WVU's strength of schedule isn't likely to change a great deal with the final four games of the year, so don't worry about that too much. The Mountaineers are, in all probability, going to finish in the Top Ten in the nation in that metric.

4) You can't just focus on West Virginia: The one thing that people struggle the most with about the RPI is that it's a constantly changing evaluation that includes every team in the nation. WVU's opponent results figure in just as much as WVU's results do – as do those of teams that West Virginia never faced. For example, WVU is currently either an eight or a nine seed in three different NCAA projections. The teams around WVU (Southern Miss, Mississippi State, Memphis, Virginia, St. Louis, UConn and California in one such evaluation) could all move up or down based on their results. A 3-1 finish by WVU, relative to what those other teams do, might move the Mountaineers up a seed line or two, but even then there's no guarantee. A current #10 seed that wins out and makes a conference tournament run might pass the entire bunch. That can be tough to assimilate, but compare it to a NASCAR race. One car might dominate the first 180 laps, only to see another team hit the right setup and fly by in the final 20 laps to grab the win. The RPI (just like the BCS standings) are designed to measure the entire season. Of course, in today's microwave, gotta-have-it-now society, we want to see what the standings are at any given moment. Just remember that they don't necessarily reflect what's going to happen – they simply show the way things look right now.

So, back to the original question – and one beyond. What will it take for WVU to get in? Given a normal distribution of wins and losses, a 2-2 finish for the Mountaineers, plus one Big East tournament win, should be enough. However, that's going to put them close to, if not at, a double-digit seed in the tournament. Also, if WVU gets an eight or a nine seed, it will have to face a #1 seed in Round Three – certainly not a desirable pairing. That's why Mountaineer fans need to keep rubbing their lucky coonskin caps and rooting for more wins. A 3-2 closeout, plus a couple of wins in the Big East tournament, could push West Virginia up to a seven or a six – and result in a far better match-up in their second game of the Big Dance.


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