Key stretch for WVU
MORGANTOWN - It was 11 days ago that West Virginia hit what it hopes was the low point of its season - a fifth loss in six games, one in which the Mountaineers blew yet another second-half lead and fell to Louisville.
Eleven days and just one game later, WVU is again filled with hope. Somewhat rested and still basking in the glow of an 18-point road beatdown of Pitt last Thursday, the Mountaineers once again have a chance to turn things around.
It won't be easy, though, not with two games in the next three days, both against ranked opponents. The first is today's 7 p.m. rematch with No. 18 Notre Dame (19-8, 11-3 Big East) on the road, which will be televised by ESPN2. Then on Friday the Mountaineers host No. 10 Marquette (22-5, 11-3) in a 9 p.m. ESPN game at the Coliseum.
How critical are these two? Well, with four games remaining in the regular season, West Virginia (17-10, 7-7) probably needs three wins in order to feel pretty good about its chances of making the NCAA tournament. That would guarantee the Mountaineers no worse than a 10-8 league record and 20 wins overall going into the Big East tournament.
True, WVU could make the NCAA field with fewer than three more wins in the regular season given an RPI schedule strength in the top 10, but the Mountaineers would prefer not to take the chance. That means winning at least one of these next two games and then beating DePaul at home and surging South Florida on the road next week.
"I'm not sure that if we're 9-9 we're not OK,'' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said, referring to his team's NCAA hopes with a .500 Big East mark. "I'd feel a whole lot better with 10. I'd feel a whole lot better with 12, actually.''
Well, 12 league wins in the regular season isn't possible, but 10 or 11 would be with a win tonight at Notre Dame. That's a tall task, though, given that the Irish have won eight in a row overall, 33 of their last 34 at Purcell Pavilion and have not lost to the Mountaineers there in 10 games over the last 16 years.
Seven of WVU's 10 straight losses at Notre Dame have been by double figures, although the only game there in the last three seasons was just a two-point loss in 2010 when a Mountaineer team ranked No. 8 rallied from a 20-point halftime deficit before Da'Sean Butler's potential game-winner rolled in and out at the end.
"It's a hard place to win,'' said West Virginia forward Kevin Jones, who had 17 points and 10 rebounds in that 2010 game, the only one played there by any current Mountaineer. "But it's not impossible.''
If nothing else, West Virginia knows what to expect from Notre Dame. The teams played just two weeks ago at the Coliseum and, like that 2010 game, West Virginia fell short after overcoming an awful first half. In Morgantown, Notre Dame held the Mountaineers to just 16 points in the first half and led by 10 before taking a three-point lead with 21/2 minutes to play and winning 55-51.
But back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers by Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant and Scott Martin won it for the Irish, who were 2-for-18 on 3-pointers to that point. That was also the game Truck Bryant was held scoreless.
"Notre Dame got us at home and there were some key plays that we slacked on. And it cost us,'' Jones said. "We have to correct that.''
It would also be a good idea to better deal with Notre Dame's 6-foot-9, 244-pound junior center Jack Cooley, who had 21 points and 12 rebounds at the Coliseum. Notre Dame generally plays with four perimeter players, and Cooley does his damage when those guards penetrate and defenders leave him to help.
"He's very efficient,'' Huggins said. "He's a lot like [Jones] in that a lot of what he gets is off the offensive glass.''
As for the Mountaineers, Huggins said the biggest problem his team has faced of late is simply making shots. The Mountaineers have begun to address that somewhat by working the ball inside to Jones and Deniz Kilicli for easier shots, but from the perimeter WVU hasn't shot well for a long time.
In the last eight games, West Virginia is shooting just 25.6 percent on 3-pointers after shooting 34.1 percent through the first 19 games.
"We just have to shoot the ball better,'' Huggins said. "It sounds simple, but it's not like we're not getting pretty good shots.''
"There have only been two guys who have ever done what he's done,'' Huggins said. "When you're one of three people at a university like this that's had a lot of great players, that's a heck of an accomplishment.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.