Ten To Go

Now is the time. West Virginia's basketball team has shown progress and battled through injuries and some tough matchups on its way to a 4-4 record in the Big East conference.

But if the Mountaineers want to move up from their current eighth place spot in the league, and secure a first round bye in the Big East tournament, they will have to defeat two or three of the other teams currently vying for the same sort of finish – including Syracuse in Wednesday night's matchup at the Carrier Dome.

It's certainly not panic time for WVU. Despite its .500 record, it is still in the thick of the fight for a good finish in the league. However, in order to move up a notch or two, and get a five- or six-seed in the Big East tournament, it will have to defeat not only teams like Rutgers, USF and DePaul, but also foes such as Providence, Villanova, Notre Dame and Syracuse. Not all of them, perhaps, but enough to move above them in the league standings and help build a stronger resume for the NCAA tournament. If West Virginia finished eighth or ninth in the league, and does so mainly by beating the teams below it, it should still get a Big Dance bid. However, a fifth-or sixth place finish with the same set of results would be much more impressive, as it would include wins over both a greater number and a higher quality of opponent.

Right now, West Virginia sits in eighth place in the league. If the Mountaineers were to win out against the team below, it would have nine league wins. While that's no means a given (Notre Dame in particular will be a tough matchup, while the road trip to Cincinnati will be fraught with emotional overtones), for the sake of assumption we'll say those games are victories. Would 9-9 in the league and twenty regular season wins be enough for an NCAA ticket? I think so. But with just a couple more wins, say against Providence or Syracuse, and the Mountaineers could be much higher in every respect. A fifth- or sixth- place league finish. Twenty-two regular season wins, and perhaps a win or two in the league tourney, and West Virginia is looking at a good seed in the Incas and the possibility of advancement there as well.

All of this hangs on a razor thin margin, which is also the measurement used to separate teams just below the top tied of the Big East pack. There will probably still be some upsets to come, but it figures that Louisville, Connecticut, Marquette and Pitt will secure the top four league finishes and the double tournament bye that comes with them. That leaves seven teams with a realistic shot at spots five through eight, and many chances to make up ground.

Can WVU win two of four against Providence, Villanova, Notre Dame and Syracuse? That seems to be the key group of games remaining on WVU's schedule – the ones that will ultimately determine where the Mountaineers finish. Do that, and they wind up at 10-8 in the league – certainly a mark that puts them in the NCAA tournament? Add in an upset somewhere along the way, and then they are really cooking with gas.

All this is predicated on continued improvement and assimilation of lessons learned to this point in the season. Is it a mental factor that keeps WVU from playing a full 40 minutes, or is it just the expected problems of youthful inexperience? Whatever the cause, WVU must overcome it in order to get the finish that it, and head coach Bob Huggins, is shooting for.

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