First off, WVU's position in the bracket is probably as good as it could be, at least as it relates to the top four seeds and possible semi-final opponents on Friday night. While all of the teams there are very good, WVU probably matches up least well against Syracuse, so seeing the Orange in the opposite bracket is at least a small benefit. That's not saying of course, that WVU would be expected to roll over either Pitt or Villanova. It's simply that of those three possible foes, the Mountaineers would probably struggle to score the most against Syracuse. The Orange zone, like all 2-3s, can be most effectively attacked with a high-low post offense, and that's something that the Mountaineers haven't been great at running. WVU's passing in the post has ranged from o.k. to bad, and even with Deniz Kilicli on the floor, the Mountaineers still don't have the strength to match up to the Orange front line. So, WVU's potential match-up with Pitt probably isn't a bad thing, even though the Mountaineers split with the Panthers during the regular season.
Of course, that's jumping the gun a bit. There's a Thursday night game to play first, against either Cincinnati, Rutgers, or Louisville. I see the Bearcats getting past the Scarlet Knights in the final game on Tuesday night, but after that I don't think it's a given that the Cardinals will roll past UC. Louisville will be coming in off an emotional Freedom Hall-closing win over The Cuse, but there's no guarantee any of that will carry over, or that seeding form will hold through the early rounds. For example, two of the four lower seeds (including West Virginia) won on Thursday last year, and with the competition that exists in the league, it would be a surprise if all of the higher seeds won through the first two rounds.
Cincinnati and Louisville present different challenges for the Mountaineers. UC's style of play more closely matches the Mountaineers, while the Cardinal's can attack some WVU weaknesses with their full court press and athletic front line. There's no doubt that both teams would love to have another shot at WVU after losses in the Coliseum this year, and no matter which team emerges from the bottom quarter of the bracket, West Virginia will have a test if it hopes to advance to Friday.
The biggest fly in the ointment on WVU's side of the bracket might be Notre Dame. Again, that's no disrespect to Pitt, so all of you screaming meemie Panther fans can calm yourselves. The Irish might have a better match-up with WVU, and already own a win over the Mountaineers this year. Still, WVU defeated Notre Dame last year in the Big East tournament, so perhaps memories of that win could help push the Mountaineers forward.
And if form holds and the Mountaineers and Panthers meet? Well, it would be somewhat fitting. It would constitute the sixth meeting between the teams over the past two seasons, and would probably surpass the other five in terms of intensity. With both rosters dotted with New York players, the local interest would be great as well.
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WVU's potential NCAA seed will be finalized by its performance in the Big East tournament, and there are some interesting possibilities for moving up and down the seed line. The Mountaineers look to be a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament if the season ended today, but as we constantly note, systems such as the RPI and the BCS standings reflect things as they stand today, not as they will look at the end of the season. So, with that in mind, how will WVU's tournament play affect its seeding?
First, the worst-case scenario. A loss on Thursday could drop WVU to a four, depending on the play of other teams around them. Would a Temple or a Vanderbilt necessarily vault WVU in the eyes of the committee? When we get down to the microanalysis necessary to slot teams into the bracket, it becomes very difficult to predict, but WVU's body of work would probably prevent that. Still, it would be good to get a win in the quarterfinals to solidify that spot, and set up a possible move to a #2.
Would just one win do that? Maybe, but there is such close competition for the two seeds that it wouldn't be a foregone conclusion. WVU's RPI (#5 overall) and strength of schedule (#2 as of Sunday) makes it a challenger, but the RPI isn't the total determinant that many observers believe it to be. Again, we're really splitting hairs here, and when that is the case, there's simply no way to predict that WVU locks up a two by just advancing to Friday. In all likelihood, West Virginia needs a pair of wins in the league tournament to lock up that #2 NCAA seed.
Finally, the dream of a #1 seed in the NCAA would likely only be realized with a win of the entire Big East tournament. It's not an automatic that the winner of the league crown is going to get a #1 in the Big Dance, but if Syracuse, West Virginia or Villanova wins it all, the chances for a #1 seed range from lock to very good. Even if a team such as Duke wins its league title, WVU's resume would match up very favorably, and there's no question that the Mountaineers would be a strong contender for one of the four top spots.
And just why is all of this important? Well, as Bob Huggins emphasizes repeatedly, being a high seed in the tournament gets teams more favorable first round opponents, and often second round foes as well. It's not as if it paves a path to the Sweet 16, but it's certainly easier than playing from the bottom half of the seed pool. There might not be a big difference between a two and a three seed in the eyes of some, but they can have a big effect in terms of the match-ups the higher seeds face in subsequent rounds. And given the hyper-competitive nature of the tournament, teams with hopes to advance need every edge that they can get.