Hoop Dreams

At the risk of tempting fate again, I'm going to look ahead past the next game and try to analyze the NCAA tournament chances of the Mountaineer men's basketball team.

I'm only doing, this, you should understand, because of the spectacular results of my labeling of the Oklahoma game as an "al-must win". WVU, obviously spurred by my magic prose, laid a fundamental beat down on the Sooners, winning by 26 points and thoroughly embarrassing head coach Kelvin Sampson (his words, not mine).

I've always believed that you should ride a hot streak until its end, so just like I'd keep shooting after I made five shots in a row, I'll keep firing on the analysis front until the string plays out. Hopefully, that won't occur for a while.

First, a couple of premises. With the win over Oklahoma, 18 wins should be enough to get the Mountaineers into the NCAA. Of course, some of that will depend on which teams the additional wins come against, but so long as WVU can manage at least a .500 record in the Big East, I believe its willingness to play tough teams on the road will be enough to push it over the top, unless the tournament selection committee suddenly reverses course from previous years. However, 19 would be a much safer goal to strive for.

Second, this also assumes that the Big East doesn't beat up on itself so badly that it only ends the season with one or two teams in the top 25. I would hope that voters in those polls will take into account the high level of competition in the league and vote accordingly, but as we've already seen, that doesn't always happen. Still, the selection committee usually takes things like that into account, and doesn't rely heavily on outside polls in the selection process.

So, with those ground rules, let's look at the remaining schedule. WVU is 7-3 in non-conference games so far, and has three remaining with Canisius, UCLA and Marshall. The bookend games of that trio are RPI killers for WVU, as both teams languish in the nether regions of the rankings. However, WVU's conference schedule will make up for some of that, and there's no doubt the Mountaineers deserve a couple of lesser challenges after its difficult early season schedule. Of course, the WVU game is pretty much the only thing the Herd has left to play for this year, and they will undoubtedly be fired up for the contest, but somehow I think WVU will be ready for that game. Let's call those two contests wins for the good guys.

As for UCLA, the call it a tossup at best. WVU will be coming off a three game homestand before traveling to Westwood, but the Bruins have been playing well after some personnel switches. So, at this point, WVU has nine wins with a tossup, which we'll factor in later.

The conference schedule is much more difficult than a season ago, as the Mountaineers don't get to face DePaul or Rutgers, two teams which will likely lose more games than they win in the league this year. Just about every conference game will be a dogfight, and WVU must figure out how to get at least eight, or better yet, nine, regular season wins to position itself for the postseason.

Home games with Marquette, Providence, Notre Dame and Cincinnati offer four good chances for wins, although I'm certainly not saying they are locks. Let's call WVU's record here 3-1. Additional home tilts with Georgetown, Connecticut, Louisville and Pitt figure to be even tougher, and while two or three wins are possible here, I'm being conservative. Call it 1-3, giving WVU a 4-4 home conference mark. That gets the Mountaineers to 13 wins overall, with that UCLA tossup still out there.

On the road, the picture is somewhat similar. WVU has winnable road clashes at South Florida, St. John's, Seton Hall, and at Cincinnati. Again, a 3-1 mark seems reasonable here. The final four road games, at Villanova, Pitt, Georgetown and Syracuse, are again a step up in competition. Again, leaning to the conservative side, I'll call that 1-3, although I do believe that the Mountaineers will at least split their season series with the Panthers and Hoyas, which would give them one extra win. However, my conservative side again rules, so a 4-4 road mark is the call.

That leaves WVU with 17 wins, a tossup with UCLA, and the Big East tournament to go. And although anything can happen in New York (as WVU so aptly demonstrated last year), I do think the Mountaineers will win at least one game at the Garden. That puts the Mountaineers at 18 wins, with the UCLA game looming larger and larger in the overall scheme of things.

A win over UCLA would put the Mountaineers in a very strong position to return to the NCAAs, but it's certainly not a requirement at this point. However, should WVU fall to the Bruins, it would not have room for any missteps against underdogs the rest of the way. Would it be tempting fate to call it an ‘al-must win' as well?

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