WVU head coach Bob Huggins is nothing if not honest with his players. When the Mountaineers come up against an opponent who they are obviously better than, Huggins will let them know. DePaul, which visits the Coliseum on Wednesday night, is one of those teams.
While the Blue Demons certainly have their fair share of Big East talent – specifically forward Dar Tucker and center Mac Koshwal – there is no disputing the fact that, at least for the 2008-09 season, Jerry Wainwright's bunch is the least that the Big East has to offer.
"It wouldn't be wise for them to do that," Huggins said on Tuesday before his Mountaineers headed to the film room to dissect the Blue Demons. "I think they understand. They understand what's at stake and what we have to do."
Essentially, what WVU must do on Wednesday is avoid the vaunted trap. With two games to play, the Mountaineers are very much in contention for a first-round bye in next week's Big East Championships at Madison Square Garden. And, looking a little bit farther down the road, most if not all of the NCAA tournament prognosticators have elevated West Virginia to "lock" status.
A loss to DePaul, however, blows all of that to bits. Without a win Wednesday, WVU can all but forget about a top-eight seed in New York City. Even worse, it all but opens up West Virginia's seemingly-locked up at-large bid for another team to poach. As such, Wednesday's game is just as important as any the Mountaineers have played this season.
"I think it's very important," Huggins admitted. "It's a lot like the St. John's game was for us a year ago when Joe (Mazzulla) makes a heck of a play at the end of the game to get it to overtime when we won. I sure hope it doesn't come to that, but for us, it's huge.
"If we come in and play hard and play well, then I think we're in good shape. If we don't, then everybody starts talking about that bubble thing again."
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DePaul's lack of on-court success might go hand-in-hand with another drought in the greater Chicago area. The once-talent-rich area has been depleted in recent years. As such, the Blue Demons have had to go outside of their traditional recruiting grounds.
In the late 1990's when former head coach Pat Kennedy had DePaul competing at a high level on an annual basis, many of his players – Quentin Richardson, Steven Hunter, Bobby Simmons and Lance Williams to name a few – hailed from the Chicago area. Hunter, Richardson and Simmons are still in the NBA.
While there are still talented players coming out of Chicago (former Memphis great and probable NBA Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose certainly fits that billing), the sheer volume of high-level prospects is not what it was at one time. Huggins, though, doesn't expect the Windy City to stay like this for long.
"I think every area has peaks and valleys when it comes to players," he explained. "Chicago has been a little down lately, and that happens everywhere.
"I was at Cincinnati for 16 years and the state of Ohio for whatever reason there were no bigs there," he explained. "There were a lot of mid-major players, but not the high-level guys. As soon as I left, they've been popping up everywhere. That's just the way it works. There is no rhyme or reason to it. You can't figure out why, for all this time, there are so many players and then all of the sudden there aren't. "
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As the bubble talk begins to build to a crescendo, West Virginia is one of seven Big East teams that will almost certainly hear its name called on Selection Sunday. With Providence and Cincinnati also on the bubble, the conference could get as many as nine teams into the Big Dance.
For teams such as the Friars and Bearcats, though, their merits will be stacked up against teams with solid records from solid conferences, which always sparks plenty of lively debate and controversy both before and after the brackets are unveiled.
Huggins, who has coached at the mid-major level when Cincinnati was a member of Conference USA, would tend to give big conference schools the benefit of the doubt, simply because their body of work in a deep and competitive conference cannot be replicated by the smaller leagues.
"I respect and appreciate what those people do, but they can't appreciate what we do and what we've gone through here until they actually go through it," he said. "Going through whatever other non-BCS league you want to talk about, put them in our league. Put the winner of all those leagues in our league for a year and find out what happens to them. It's just brutal. I think we're down to six teams in the top 25, but three of them are in the top 10. We've beaten up on each other."
During his days in Conference USA, Huggins squared off against good teams from Louisville, Memphis, good teams from UNC-Charlotte and even the aforementioned Blue Demons with Richardson, Simmons and Hunter. Now-a-days, C-USA is essentially Memphis and…well, Memphis. The Tigers, winners of 18 straight overall and 54 consecutive conference games, are among a handful of teams being considered for the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. The knock against Memphis will be that, despite their impressive streaks, they haven't really beaten anybody of note, aside from Gonzaga.
"You'd have to be a fool to argue that (Conference USA) is as strong as it was back then," Huggins said. "It's not. Even Memphis, and (Tigers head coach) John (Calipari) I think would be the first to say this, they're not winning 54 straight in our league. They might not even win five straight probably. A year ago, maybe. It's just hard. It's a hard job to sit in that room and try to figure out what the right thing is to do."