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Tourney feel arrives early for WVU

MORGANTOWN - Bob Huggins doesn't need to be reminded where his West Virginia basketball team began slipping this season any more than you do. He just has a slightly different take on the precise timing.

It was the St. John's game at Madison Square Garden in January, of course. To that point the Mountaineers were 15-5 overall, 5-2 in the Big East and on the verge of breaking into the Top 25 in the polls and perhaps even the Top 10 in the RPI. Life was good.

And then it all turned on a dime, or at least it appeared to that night in New York when a St. John's team starting five freshmen and on a four-game losing streak inflicted upon WVU an almost unfathomable 16-point defeat that wasn't really even as close as that.

It didn't turn that night, though. It turned in the days leading up to it.

"You want me to be really honest with you? We were playing pretty good and then I did everything short of just lining them up and running them for three hours to make them realize anybody in this league can beat you,'' Huggins said, recalling the days just after his team had beaten a hot Cincinnati team even with an abysmal performance by Truck Bryant. "And then we went to St. John's and that was the most uninspired I've ever seen a team play in my life. And it's been all downhill since that. We were playing pretty good [until then].''

Since then? Not so much. Wednesday's 71-44 washout at Notre Dame was statistically the worst defeat of Huggins' nearly five years at his alma mater. Since that overtime win against Cincinnati, West Virginia has lost six of eight, won another in overtime against the Big East's last-place team and done a free fall in regard to its NCAA tournament chances.

Once considered a top-four seed, WVU won't even make the tournament at its current pace. And if the Big East tournament started today, the Mountaineers would be the 10th seed.

Oh, but all they have to do to turn things around is beat No. 10 Marquette on one day's preparation, then deal with DePaul and South Florida next week. No biggie, right? Just win out and get in.

"It's hard right now to achieve what we want to achieve,'' junior center Deniz Kilicli said after Wednesday's loss at Notre Dame. "But these are the times when you just have to respond. We've still got three more games to go and if we win those we'll be in good shape.

"It's the end of the season and we've got to play like it's a tournament.''

Well, maybe it's not a tournament exactly, but it might well be a double-elimination event for the Mountaineers. At 17-11 overall and 7-8 in the Big East, two more wins would send WVU into the Big East tournament squarely on the bubble and needing another win or two.

Of course, it would help if one of those wins was tonight against Marquette because that counts a whole lot more than a win over DePaul and a little more than a road win at USF. (No, this isn't football where every game counts the same, at least where NCAA resumes are concerned.)

I asked Huggins Wednesday night if his team needed to approach these last three games like a tournament.

"God, I hope not,'' he said.

"Is it a tournament atmosphere? We've got to win some games. I don't know, does that make it a tournament atmosphere? It's not one-and-done, but we've got to win some games. You put yourself behind the 8-ball and we've certainly done that. We've lost some close ones, but usually you lose some close ones because they make plays and you don't.''

OK, so it might not be one-and-done right now, but it will be hard to argue that it isn't such next week if there's not a win tonight against Marquette. Think about it. If WVU loses to Marquette, the absolute best it can do heading into the Big East tournament is a 19-12 record, 9-9 in the league and seven losses in the last 11 games of the regular season. There will be just one win over a Top 25 RPI team and just four over Top 50 teams, while the team's RPI will be down in the 50s or 60s at best. Add it all up and it would mean the Mountaineers would go into Madison Square Garden needing to win at least two and perhaps three or more games.

All in all it's not much different than the situation WVU faced last season, but this isn't last season's team, either, not with only three players who have been through this before.

"Yeah, it is different because of the young guys,'' Kevin Jones said. "We get beat like [at Notre Dame] and they kind of worry and get down on themselves. But we just have to stay together. We have three more games left and we have to find a way to win. That's what it's all about.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at              Twitter.com/dphickman1.


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