Bilas Breaks Down WVU

ESPN and CBS College Basketball Analyst Jay Bilas spent a few minutes on Friday evening discussing the WVU men's basketball team both in terms of its chances against Louisville and its outlook heading into the postseason.

Bilas, in town for Saturday's ESPN GameDay festivities at the Coliseum, is certainly no stranger to the Big East. In addition to his Saturday responsibilities with the popular traveling road show, the former Duke standout joins broadcast partners Sean McDonough and Bill Raftery for the weekly Big East portion of Big Monday.

Having seen every team expected to compete for the conference's tournament crown next week in New York City, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more informed opinion of the league than that of Bilas.

For seeding purposes, we know that West Virginia can finish no lower than seventh place. However, with a WVU win over the Cardinals and a loss by Syracuse at Marquette, the Mountaineers can move as high as sixth place in the seeding.

So, where does Bilas rank WVU amongst the Big East's beasts?

"Top five or six," he said without hesitation. "Top five or six means top 20 in the country. That's how good this league is. Some of the teams in the league are even better than their ranking because of the league they play in.

"When people start comparing teams and saying ‘this team lost to that team' and all that, well, you plug anybody into that schedule and see how they do. I'd like to see that. you have to make sure you evaluate the strength of the schedule if you are going to evaluate the components of it."

In terms of their schedule, the Mountaineers couldn't have done much more. West Virginia's strength of schedule has been rated among the best in the nation for much of the season. Much of that, of course, is because of the league it plays in. Out-of-conference, the Mountaineers have faced a number of quality teams with good RPI ratings.

While the Big East is great every year, the 2008-09 season has arguably been the league's best. At one point, nine teams from the conference were ranked in the Top 25. Seven will most certainly hear their name called on Selection Sunday, with two more (Cincinnati and Providence) resting squarely on the bubble.

Adding to the already difficult task of navigating through the rough waters of the Big East for West Virginia has been a season-ending injury to Joe Mazzulla. The would-be junior point guard aggravated a pre-existing condition in his shoulder at Ole Miss on December 3, and has essentially been on the shelf since. Even without Mazzulla, the Mountaineers have managed not only to stay afloat, but thrive, much to the surprise of Bilas.

"They have done an extraordinary job while Joe Mazzulla has been out," he admitted. "If you put Mazzulla on this team and then move (freshman point guard Truck) Bryant off the ball or let him learn his way without being thrown into the fire, this team is even better. I don't think you can replace that level of toughness that Mazzulla brings. You can't make up for that type of experience and just the hard-nosed toughness that he brought."

While Mazzulla has spent much of the season in street clothes at the end of the bench, the Mountaineers still have a toughness and swagger about them nevertheless. Such is the imprint that second-year head coach Bob Huggins has already left on the program at his alma mater.

Realistically speaking, a team that plays three freshmen in its top seven players, lacks a seasoned big man and lost its most experienced floor general a few weeks into the season should have no business competing in this conference, let alone finishing comfortably in the top half of the final standings. The influence of Huggins, however, cannot be understated.

While just five players on the current roster were recruited by him, the Mountaineers have bought in completely to a system that stands in stark contrast to the successful philosophies of former head coach John Beilein.

"I think that if you are a player, you can play any style," Bilas said. "I think that players do what is emphasized. The same guy who didn't rebound two years ago rebounds now because it is being emphasized.

"The defense is different and the offense is different and that's fine because everybody's offense and defense is a little bit different. You are what you emphasize and Bob emphasizes defense, rebounding and toughness, playing together, playing harder than your opponent. They do that."

And through 30 games, they have done so quite well. With Huggins signed to a lifetime contract and continuing to stockpile even more weapons down the road, the good times in Morgantown are just getting started.

"I think so," Bilas said when asked if the Mountaineers can compete for the league title in the coming years. "I think that as long as Bob is here, they are going to be really good. They are an NCAA tournament team today, right now, no question. They can lose the rest of their games and still get in."

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