Ahead of the Curve

West Virginia's three-game men's basketball winning streak has put it ahead of the curve in the race for good seeding in both the Big East and NCAA Tournaments. However, there's still work to be done, and much of it of the difficult sort, as the Mountaineers head into the final two weeks of the regular season.

The Mountaineers had been stuck at or around the .500 mark for much of the Big East season. "Stuck" might not be the best word to describe West Virginia's play or standing, because it has overcome a good deal of adversity to battle its way to a mid-pack standing in the league, and it deserves a great deal of credit for its accomplishments to date. However, to get on the roll that it needed to move up in the conference and seeding race, it had to string some wins together. Now that it has done just that, with victories over Villanova, Notre Dame and Rutgers, the Mountaineers are in sixth place in the league with an 8-6 record. Staying there, however, will be an even more difficult challenge.

WVU leads Providence by one-half game, with Syracuse and Cincinnati one game back. The Mountaineers hold the tie-breaker over the Friars, but are one the short end of that stick against the Orange. The tiebreaker against Cincinnati, next on WVU's schedule, will be determined on Thursday when the Mountaineers play the Bearcats. Holding the head-to-head advantage is crucial, as the tightly packed Big East standings don't figure to unclog much over the final four games of the season.

The schedules of the teams WVU is battling with in the league standings aren't overly difficult. The Mountaineer slate is one of the toughest remaining, with the road trip to Cincy and a home date against Louisville remaining in the final four. (Contests at USF and at home against DePaul round out that schedule, and although anything can happen, West Virginia will be favored in those two contests.) A 3-1 record would be a very good finish.

Providence, sitting at 8-7, has just three games to go. A home date against Pitt is followed by road trips to Rutgers and Villanova, so a 9-9 finish seems to be the most likely outcome. One upset, though, and the Friars could battle back in the conference race. However, owing to WVU's 86-59 win in the head-to-head, the Friars would have to win two more games than West Virginia down the stretch in order to pass them for conference seeding purposes.

Syracuse (7-7), on the other hand, is in decent shape in the conference standings fight, as the Orange hold the tiebreaker over the Mountaineers. WVU can, of course, hold off the Orange by winning out, which would keep them above the Orange in the league standings no matter what they do. While that isn't an impossibility, it will be a difficult task. You can never count out WVU at home, so an upset of Louisville certainly isn't out of the question, given that the Mountaineers showed they could handle the Cardinal press in the second half of its road game at Freedom Hall last month. Still, if you accept that, you have to accept the converse, which is that Cincinnati will have at least a puncher's chance in what figures to be a strange environment honoring Bob Huggins on Thursday night.

For its own part, Syracuse's schedule isn't too daunting. The Orange have road trips to St. John's and Marquette and home tilts against Cincinnati and Rutgers remaining. Two and two is likely the worst that Jim Boeheim's troops would be expected to finish, but 3-1 is more likely. With the Louisville game a tossup at best, it makes the Cincinnati game all the more critical for West Virginia. WVU must simply match Syracuse's record from here on out to remain in front of the Orange, but in the wild scramble that is the Big East, that's anything but a lock.

Finally, there's the prospect of running down Villanova (10-4) to garner the fifth spot in the league. WVU holds the tiebreaker, but is two games behind the Wildcats, so the Mountaineers will almost certainly have to go 4-0 down the stretch to have any hopes in that regard. Villanova's remaining games are the easiest of all the mid-pack contenders. Home games against Georgetown and Providence, alternated with road trips to DePaul and Villanova, don't comprise a murderer's row. The Wildcats would have to lose two (Notre Dame and Georgetown?) while WVU would have to sweep in order to forge a tie and win the tiebreaker.

What does all this mean? First, that there are still a lot of critical games left to play – but none as important as WVU's trip to the Queen City on Thursday. Yes, each league game counts the same, and the Mountaineers could undo all the good they have done recently with a stumble against USF or DePaul. But West Virginia could extend its winning streak to four, knock Cincinnati back a step (or two) in the league standings, continue to build on the momentum that has put them in possession of sixth place in the league, and put a bit of pressure on Villanova over the final week of the season. The Bearcats have games left against Syracuse, USF and Seton Hall, but WVU doesn't want to be in the position of having to root for a Cincinnati loss to make up for a setback on Thursday evening. If the Mountaineers can come out with a win over the Bearcats, they'll not only be ahead of the curve, but riding the crest of a wave that could lead to even more postseason success.

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