Plenty to Play For

While WVU head coach Bob Huggins didn't go as far as his Kentucky counterpart John Calipari did on Friday, he seemed to generally agree that the remainder of Big East games and the league's upcoming tournament were more important for NCAA Tournament seeding than anything else.

Calipari, speaking to reporters on Friday in advance of a game against Tennessee which would give his Wildcats at least a share of a Southeastern Conference title with a win, was quoted in an Associated Press story as saying that championship would mean "nothing."

His Mountaineer counterpart didn't quite diminish the importance of league titles to that degree, but still said his emphasis with his players has not been about the chance to earn a double-bye in the upcoming Big East Tournament.

Instead, he's spoken about the need for players to put themselves in a better position to earn a favorable NCAA seed by winning games down the stretch.

"I haven't said a word to them about a double-bye," said Huggins.

"Certainly, you want to put yourself in the best position you can to advance in the Big East Tournament, but we're playing for an [NCAA] seed. We could still, I think, at this point in time, play our way into a two seed. The difference between being a No. 2 seed and being a five or a six seed is huge. We've got a lot to play for."

That starts with this afternoon's game against Cincinnati -- a team that will be fighting to improve its postseason fate as well.

The Bearcats (16-11, 7-8) are squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble as the season winds down, and a "signature" win over the Mountaineers at the Coliseum would go a long way towards making sure they end up happy on Selection Sunday.

But motivation should not be a factor for West Virginia, either, as it is coming off a bitterly disappointing 73-62 loss at Connecticut on Monday night.

With limited work since returning from the Nutmeg State, Huggins said it's tough to tell whether that defeat has served to refocus the energies of his players on having a stronger stretch run.

"We've only practiced once, really," said the third-year Mountaineer head coach. "The day after the game we watched some film and went over some things. They've been good. But I thought they were good going into the UConn game."

If the loss to the Huskies isn't enough to get WVU players ready for this afternoon's game, perhaps the memory of losses in the past two years to Cincinnati should be.

Last season, the squad headed by former Huggins assistant Mick Cronin defeated West Virginia 65-61 at Fifth Third Arena.

But the year before, things were little better when Huggins first matched up with his former team at the Coliseum, infamously donning an all-gold suit that was far easier to look at than his team's play. The Bearcats easily knocked off their hosts 62-39 that night.

If the Mountaineers hope to atone for those losses, they will have to do a better job of containing UC reserve forward Yancy Gates, who came off the bench to score 22 points and grab 11 rebounds last year.

"He's good," Huggins said of Gates, who averages 10.6 points and 6.3 boards off the bench. "Yancy may be the most talented offensive post guy in our league -- and I say that with [Notre Dame star Luke] Harangody kind of taking it out to the perimeter."

"We have to, conceptually, do a better job than what we did a year ago. We didn't give anybody any help. We let them get iso-ed, so we got too extended. There's things that we need to fix. But it's pretty much the same cast of characters."

But it's the play of freshman guard Lance Stephenson, UC's leading scorer at 11.5 points per game and its second-leading rebounder (just behind Gates) with 5.0 per contest, that has given the Bearcats an added spark.

"He's got great athleticism, and he's another guy who really rebounds the ball for them," said Huggins. "I think the best thing he does is rebound the ball -- particularly at the offensive end. And I think he gives them some easy baskets. He's good in transition."

And while the WVU head coach might have seemed a bit subdued after Monday's loss to UConn, he said his team isn't far from being right where he wants it to be in March.

"I mean, to shoot it as poorly as we've shot it from the field and from the foul line and still have a chance to win every game. . . ." Huggins said, trailing off and leaving the thought unfinished. "We've struggled, then we've come back and got in games. We just haven't made any shots. We've got to make some shots."


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