Big East Rules

West Virginia doesn't begin Big East basketball conference play until tomorrow, but there are already some interesting observations to be made from the early games that have been played this week. Those results, however, also lead to some bigger questions.

Conventional wisdom holds that the 16-team juggernaut will beat itself up during the lengthy 18-game schedule, and there has already been a good bit of evidence to support that outlook. Georgetown traveled to Connecticut and physically dominated the top five Huskies, winning 74-63, while Marquette protected a lead through much of the game to knock off Villanova by the score of 79-72. Even Rutgers gave powerhouse Pittsburgh a good battle before falling at home by the score of 78-72. At this point, only USF appears to be a "breather" – while St. John's and DePaul aren't going to crack anyone's Top 25, they still have the ability to knock off anyone. That goes beyond the "any given day" theory – there's simply a lot of talent spread around the league.

With those games as a barometer, a number of other questions are raised. Is it possible for any team to go undefeated in the league? If not, how many losses might the league champion absorb? And more importantly, will a 9-9 or 10-8 league record be enough to get a team into the NCAA tournament?

The answer to the first question is, probably not. With two more league games on the schedule this year, the picture of an 18-0 league mark is tough to imagine. It could happen, but it's highly unlikely. This isn't Conference USA. Teams that have an off night, either shooting, or defensively, or at whatever aspect of the game they excel in, are going to be ripe for a loss.

That's the easy answer – now the questions get tougher. It won't be a surprise to see the league's regular season champ have at least three losses, and possibly four. As we saw in the Georgetown – UConn game, teams can't depend on talent alone to win league games this year. The Huskies weren't ready to play, and the Hoyas handed them their hats. (That's probably not good news for West Virginia, which hosts the Huskies next Tuesday at home, but those sorts of challenges are going to be common in 2009.)

This back and forth could also set up some great games at the end of the year as teams jockey for the league title, Big East tournament seeding, and NCAA bids. Remember that the teams finishing 1-4 in the league get two byes in the Big East tournament, while those finishing 5-8 get one. As hard as it is to picture a team going 18-0 in the regular season, its even tougher to imagine any school winning five games in five days to nab the tournament crown, so getting into those top eight slots will be critical. The battle for the #4 spot will also probably be a barnburner that goes down to the final week – and the prize of an extra day off at Madison Square Garden is one that will be huge. It won't be shocking to see teams with four or five losses fighting for that spot.

The last question – the required league record – will have some other factors tied in with it as well. The NCAA selection committee does a good job in considering all of those, such as strength of schedule, road, neutral court and out of conference wins and the like, so this certainly isn't the only criterion to look at. However, any team that records ten wins in the league should have a very good shot at making the NCAAs, and 9-9, with the addition of a good out of conference win or two, should also put teams under heavy consideration. Even an 8-10 league record, for a team that has some marquee wins, might put it on the bubble.

So, where does West Virginia stand entering the league slate? In pretty good shape, with the realization that there is a long road to go. WVU's neutral court wins will help, as will the beatdown of Ohio State. The selection committee should realize that WVU's loss to Davidson came with its starting backcourt sidelined, as the members have that sort of information available. WVU's RPI should remain high (provided it wins a reasonable number of league games). If the Mountaineers can add a couple of good road wins to its resume, and take care of teams that are in the lower half of the league, it should again be in position to make another trip to play for the ultimate prize. With 19 games remaining, an 11-8 record should be enough to secure that ticket.

Of course, the Mountaineers and head coach Bob Huggins are aiming higher than that. Huggins, who hates losing like fans despise Pitt, certainly wouldn't take that record if it was offered to him. Given the strength of the league, however, that would not be a bad mark at season's end. The point is to note that there are going to be league losses. There might be a bad one or two, like last year's Cincinnati meltdown. The key will be to avoid hitting a losing streak – to play consistently and make other teams play their absolute best to get a win. Giving away games will be the quickest route to a spot near the bottom of the league's standings.

While most every game figures to be a battle, West Virginia's key stretch comes at the end of this month. In just two week's time, the Mountaineers will face Georgetown, Pitt, St. John's, Louisville and Syracuse. Then following a slight home break against Providence, WVU faces Pitt, Villanova and Notre Dame. That nine-game stretch, in the heart of the season, will likely either set the Mountaineers up for a strong run at NCAA seeding, or leave them battling for a spot on the bubble. How that will end up remains the biggest question of all, but this year's team does have the ability to make another successful tournament run.


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