Break On Through

West Virginia got the split most of its fans wanted. Now, the Mountaineers get a chance to do their part against Providence in eerily similar circumstances to the 2004-05 season.

With No. 21 Marquette's victory over No. 12 Pitt on Saturday and St. John's upset of Providence today, WVU secures a seven seed in the Big East tournament – and manages to dodge facing red-hot Villanova, a nine-seed, in what amounts to a must-win. Instead, it will play tenth-seeded PC, which it lost to 64-61 earlier this season. It's a revenge game with huge meaning as the Mountaineers continue to fight for an at-large berth in the NCAAs.

And it's one viewed as easily more winnable than having to fend off a Wildcats' squad that has won seven of its last nine, albeit against teams in the latter half of the league standings outside of Louisville. The Cardinals secured the two-seed and denied Pitt at least a share of the league's regular-season title with the Panthers' loss, and would be the second-round foe for WVU should it advance in round one. That, too, is a game viewed as a better match-up than that of Pitt, with its physical interior play and superb bench. It amounts to a very good outcome of events – and one that sets up a situation with many parallels to the 2004-05 Elite Eight squad.

WVU knew it needed at least one win in the Big East Tournament that year, and secured that with an 82-59 victory over the Friars – who like this season had just played St. John's one game prior in the regular season finale. But, when the bubble expanded significantly and underdog mid-major teams began upsetting top conference tourney seeds, the Mountaineers actually needed the next win, an upset of top-ranked Boston College to put West Virginia into the NCAAs.

Now, the 21-9 Mountaineers, 9-7 in the conference, need at least one win, and perhaps two, although the school got major help this weekend when teams like Winthrop, Xavier, Albany, Butler, Davidson and Southern Illinois (the Salukis did lose in the Missouri Valley championship today against two-seed Creighton after winning in the semis) won games they were expected to over much lower-seeded teams, some to clinch berths that ensured their respective leagues got only a single bid. That kept the bubble outlook manageable for WVU, and if it can win its first round match-up, it appears primed to make a third consecutive NCAA appearance for the first time in 23 years, something that seemed improbable after the loss at Pitt.

Frank Young, who started versus Boston College in the 2005 Big East tournament in place of forward Tyrone Sally because of illness and scored 14 points in 24 minutes, noted after the win over Cincinnati that he could "definitely compare this to two years ago when we had our backs to the wall. We know we are going to need a game, and maybe two, in the Garden to get into the tournament. Once you step on that floor, it's business. And it's our job to go out there and play hard."

It appears that the Big East, once viewed as the weakest of BCS leagues at the start of the year, as built itself into having potentially eight bids this year. Georgetown, Louisville, Pitt, Notre Dame and Marquette are locks, and Syracuse seems to be likely in as well. Providence, barring a run, should be out, and DePaul seems out as well, though that is more debatable. So, entering the league's tourney, West Virginia and Villanova will fight the Blue Demons for the final two spots. If just one is given, Villanova would likely be the team because of its RPI and schedule strength. The Mountaineers can secure a bid with two wins, and one very well could do it, especially considering that the winner of the 8-9 game between DePaul and Villanova must face Georgetown, one of the hottest teams in basketball, and thus will struggle to win twice.

"We're trying to win the Big East," Alex Ruoff said. "We're not really thinking about the NCAAs. I am real excited to get to New York and I think we are going to be ready to play."

And, despite the road woes this year – West Virginia is 3-6 in true away contests, including 2-6 in the Big East – it is 4-1 in neutral court games, the lone loss coming to Arkansas in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. WVU has beaten Montana, Western Michigan, Marshall and North Carolina State on perceived neutral settings, although the wins over the Herd and Wolfpack were in Charleston at the Civic Center.

"One of our main things is going to the NCAA Tournament," senior center Rob Summers said. "Whatever we gotta do to do it, we're gonna do it. I'm not looking to play another home game."

West Virginia-Providence tips off Wednesday at 7 p.m. The game is televised by ESPN. DePaul and Villanova will play at Noon, also on ESPN. If the Mountaineers win, they will play Louisville at 7 p.m. on Thursday. WVU will likely wear its white or yellow jerseys in the first game, the latter having been involved in just one loss this season. No. 5 Syracuse faces No. 12 UConn, who was the top seed last year, at 2 p.m. The winner plays No. 4 Notre Dame. No. 6 Marquette and No. 11 St. John's end the first day at 9 p.m. The winner will face Pitt, the three seed.

"I know it may sound crazy but I'm much more comfortable playing the first round than waiting around for a day, especially waiting around to play that late game," WVU head coach John Beilein said.


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