After running a variety of scenarios and situations with regard to what West Virginia must do to grab a top eight seed – and more importantly a first-round bye – in next week's Big East Championships at Madison Square Garden, the path to those goals became a lot simpler last night.
Less than a week ago, it looked as though Cincinnati would move past the Mountaineers in the standings by virtue of their 65-61 head-to-head triumph last Thursday night at Fifth-Third Arena. Even with a blowout loss at Syracuse over the weekend, the Bearcats still had a 9-8 league record with winnable games against South Florida and Seton Hall to finish the season.
Syracuse and Providence had already clinched first-round byes prior to Tuesday night's league games, in addition to conference contenders Connecticut, Louisville, Pitt, Marquette and Villanova. UC and WVU were essentially the only two teams competing for the lone remaining bye.
Cincinnati's chances of earning that bye all but went up in flames by virtue of its shocking 70-59 loss at USF Tuesday night. Now, the Bearcats can finish no better than 9-9 in the league. All that stands between West Virginia and a top-eight seed next week is one win. That's all it will take to ensure that the Mountaineers will not be playing in the tournament's opening round on Tuesday.
As luck would have it, winless DePaul enters the Coliseum tonight with no postseason aspirations whatsoever. The Blue Demons have a chance to become just the third winless team in the storied history of the Big East Conference.
On the contrary, WVU still has plenty to play for. In addition to the aforementioned conference tournament ramifications, a few more wins between now and Selection Sunday could potentially result in a solid NCAA tournament seed for the Mountaineers. West Virginia was the seventh seed in the West Regional last March, making it all the way to the Sweet 16 before falling to Xavier. A few more wins should ensure that WVU at worst equals its seeding from a year ago.
It goes without saying that a nationally-televised win over Louisville on Saturday would do wonders for West Virginia's NCAA seeding. Before that game, though, comes this, even if it is against a team that hasn't won a conference game in nearly a full year (the Blue Demons defeated Cincinnati on March 6, 2008 for their last Big East victory).
"We know that DePaul is a scrappy team," admitted freshman forward Devin Ebanks. "We had definitely watched a lot of film on them, and they have a few players who are really good. They're a good team. You definitely cannot take them lightly no matter what.
"(DePaul) coming up is a pretty good game for us to get us ready for Louisville," added Wellington Smith. "It's not going to be an easy one. We just have to play great defense like we've been doing, and make some shots."
In all honesty, it has to be tempting to look ahead to Saturday's game. ESPN's College GameDay program will broadcast live from the Coliseum in the morning. Legendary head coach Bob Knight will be in the building as part of the day's festivities. With most of the town and fan base already looking ahead to Saturday, why shouldn't the Mountaineers themselves?
The answer to that one is simple – even with DePaul's pursuit of putridity, any team in the league can lose to any other team in the league on any night. Just ask Cincinnati. So, despite the temptation, looking ahead should not be an issue.
"It's easy to do that, but we have coaches who will obviously turn our attention back to DePaul," Smith noted. "I feel like the coaching staff is doing a great job of preparing us for this game and emphasizing it."
Not to mention the fact that, heading down the stretch, the last thing WVU wants to do is put a bad loss on its resume as March begins. Giving an 0-16 conference team their first league win would certainly qualify as such.
"That is true, and we don't want that to be us," Smith admitted. "We're trying our best to not let that happen for us or for them."
Above all else, though, the realization that most if not all of their goals are still within reach is what is motivating West Virginia's players more than anything else.
"With the way that Big East games go, trying to start on Tuesday and go five days to get to the championship, your odds are not very good," concluded senior guard Alex Ruoff. "That would be really tough. To get that first day off and get that buy would be really, really good for us."
Take care of business against DePaul, and the Mountaineers will get exactly that.