Head coach Bob Huggins said he thought the Mountaineers were in the NCAA Tournament after they defeated Pitt 76-62 on Monday. Alex Ruoff thought likewise. Jamie Smalligan said WVU was in – of that night – but would likely need to beat St. John's Saturday in a noon match-up to seal it.
"I'll be my scholarship if we don't get in," he said. Then, the center quickly said he was joking. That essentially sums the mood of the Mountaineers. It is a team brimming with confidence that knows it is indeed on the correct side of the postseason bubble. It is also well aware that a loss at St. John's and a first-round exit from the Big East Tournament would leave many, Huggins included, sweating on Selection Sunday.
"You look around at the teams that are in the NCAA tournament and they haven't done what we've done," Huggins said. "We've had good games but we haven't finished enough. I don't think there's a doubt in anybody's mind that we are an NCAA tournament team."
Again, that is of now. The game at St. John's is the de facto game of the year. Win it, and a bid is nearly assured barring runs in the conference tournaments for other bubble teams. Lose it, and West Virginia will head back to New York City just three days later needing a victory in a more pressure situation – one that will be against a more difficult foe. A defeat could drop WVU from sixth to seventh if Pitt beats DePaul at home on Sunday. The Panthers would own the tiebreak because both teams are 1-1 against the other. The league then looks at the top seeded teams and factors in how schools performed against it. The Panthers beat Georgetown, while WVU lost. No other teams can catch the Mountaineers, as Villanova, Syracuse and Cincinnati have all lost nine league games. A win, combined with a Syracuse victory over Marquette in the Carrier Dome, and West Virginia finishes fifth via winning the head-to-head match-up with the Golden Eagles, who are now 11-6 in Big East play.
Of now, West Virginia, with a win, would likely finish sixth and play in the late game on Wednesday against Seton Hall. WVU easily beat Bobby Gonzales' Pirates 89-68 on Feb. 17 at home. A win there would pit it against third-seeded Notre Dame. A boost to fifth gives West Virginia yet another first round Big East Tournament game against Providence at 2 p.m. A win, and the second round foe is four-seed Connecticut. This is obviously fluid and predicated on beating the Red Storm.
WVU (21-9, 10-7) won the first match-up 73-64 in a game in which Huggins will admit WVU thought it could simply show up and dominate. It cannot do that in Madison Square Garden, and Huggins reiterated that the Mountaineers must thoroughly run through its sets, something that has gotten significantly better as the season has progressed. The coach said WVU executed very well versus Pitt in the latter game after just standing round at time earlier in the season, the Red Storm (11-18, 5-12) game included. This time, Norm Roberts' team will have nothing more to play for than pride and the all-time greats the school is honoring before the game. The emotion should be reasonably high in the arena, which should be beneficial to give younger players – 10 of 15 on this year's roster are freshmen or sophomores – like John Flowers a feel for both the building's floor and surroundings and a glimpse of what tourney games are like.
The Johnnies have lost six of their last seven games and 12 of the last 16. The Red Storm are just 8-7 at home, with a 1-5 mark inside the World's Most Famous Arena. Roberts' three-guard, two-forward lineup hasn't shot well enough to worry most foes and, if West Virginia, winners of seven of their last 10 at Madison Square Garden, continues to execute and run through sets, there is little reason it can't stay with SJU on the boards and win an eighth straight in the series. There is too much at stake to think it would do otherwise.