The Ratings Percentage Index, a measure of a team's strength of wins and losses relative to opponents' wins and losses, is seen as the de facto number when programs are striving to build a tempting resume' for the NCAA committee. West Virginia, at 16-6, 5-4 in the Big East, is of now considered on the proverbial bubble of last-five-in-or-out. The Mountaineers are currently rated 44th and have an average loss to Cincinnati while also being beaten by Oklahoma on what is considered a neutral court. They do have a win over then-No. 10 Marquette, but lack the kind of road victory that will impress voters. Pitt, ranked 21st in both the Coaches Poll and RPI, offers that opportunity on Thursday, when the teams meet for the 174th time.
"I try to be honest with them," Huggins said. "I think the worst thing you can do is have a guy come up at the end of the year and say that if they knew it was that important then we would have been more ready. I don't want them to say that to me. I want them to know where we are and what we need to do. They have things they set out to do at the start of the season. It is kinda like trying to go somewhere without a road map. It's kinda hard to get there if you don't know where you are going."
West Virginia's RPI is a surprisingly low eighth in the Big East. Georgetown (sixth), UConn (16th), Pitt (21st), Louisville (24th), Marquette (29th), Syracuse (36th) and Notre Dame (40th) are all ahead of the Mountaineers, who are listed at 15-6 overall because the RPI does not count Division II wins. WVU's schedule strength is 50th, while Syracuse's is a league-best sixth. Pitt, Connecticut and Seton Hall are the only teams in the top 65 of the RPI left on the regular season schedule, giving an idea of the importance of collecting solid wins when available.
"He uses it as a tool to stress to us how important each game is," forward Joe Alexander said. "If we don't win we will slide in the RPI. The rivalry makes it easier to play there because we are pumped to play them just like a home team is pumped to play."
The Panthers (17-5, 5-4) are tied with WVU in the league standings after going 5-4 in their last nine outings following a red-hot start. Head coach Jamie Dixon's squad has been hampered by injuries, specifically the loss of small forward Mike Cook and guard Levance Fields for the season. Cook, an East Carolina transfer who became one of the most productive players on the team, tore his left ACL in an overtime win against Duke. Fields broke his left foot in a win over Dayton. The players combined to average 22 points, and both had started 48 straight games until the injuries.
Pitt, winners of three straight and five of the last eight in series play, is 12-1 at home, the lone loss coming versus Rutgers. The Panthers must still play Marquette, Notre Dane, Louisville and Syracuse, among others, meaning they have multiple chances to rack up decent wins albeit with a much tougher end of season slate.
"I always thought it was a lot of fun; I had a big time with it," Hugins said of the rivalry. "It's what you look forward to playing when you start playing basketball. It's great enthusiasm when playing against a quality opponent. They are good. They play defense and run offense; they are the best rebounding team in our league. They have great size and strength."
After facing Pitt, West Virginia will be off until its Valentine's Day clash at home against Rutgers. The one game in a 12-day span (Feb. 2-14) should help the Mountaineers better heal and ready for the final eight games. Alexander said he was "100 percent," but several other players are fighting bumps, bruises and soreness as the year progresses. There are no significant injuries, however, so the entire line-up will be available Thursday.
"We need to get healed up," Huggins said. "We have a lot of guys playing hurt. I am not sure a week will cure them all, but hopefully a week will cure some of them. We ought to be a little fresher, so I am looking forward to the break."