Mountaineers lacking finishing touch
MORGANTOWN - The NCAA tournament selection committee rarely takes into account how a team wins or loses games, just whether they win or lose and who they play.
That's too bad for West Virginia's case this season, because the Mountaineers have had a whole bunch of losses that could easily have been wins but for one or two mistakes late.
Heading into Saturday's noon regular-season finale against surging South Florida (19-11 overall, 12-5 Big East) at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, West Virginia (18-12, 8-9) is thisclose to having three or four or more wins. While it might not matter in the long run - the Mountaineers still have a chance to make the NCAA tournament despite those close losses - it would have made the regular-season end game a whole lot easier.
For instance, while losing seven of nine games during its darkest stretch, the Mountaineers lost to No. 2 Syracuse, No. 8 Marquette, No. 20 Notre Dame and No. 19 Louisville by a combined 10 points. The losses to the two Top 10 teams in that group came by a combined three points.
Bob Huggins, of course, knows all too well how close his team has come.
"I talked to [Kentucky coach John Calipari earlier this week] and he said, 'I watch your team, Huggs, and you're not that far away from being good,' '' Huggins said. "Which is kind of what I said a week ago, but we just don't finish anything.''
Indeed, finishing has been the issue all along. Consider that in each of those four losses West Virginia was either ahead down the stretch and/or had the ball with a chance to win at the end and didn't.
"If you watch us, other than the second half at Notre Dame we've been in games,'' Huggins said. "We've had opportunities to win games.''
The end of the Louisville game was a perfect example. West Virginia had the ball with a chance to win before Gary Browne forced a pass inside to Kevin Jones that was intercepted by Kyle Kuric.
"He saw K.J. open, he just didn't see Kuric,'' Huggins said. "That happens sometimes.
"Truck [Bryant] throws it away the [first] Notre Dame game when we're up three with the ball. He tried to throw it over top of [Jerian] Grant and Grant's got great length and he just underestimated his length. And there have been others.''
Figure on Saturday's game with South Florida being the same. The Bulls play smothering defense and slow the game way down. In winning six of the last seven games, USF has allowed more than 51 points once (at Syracuse, which scored 56) and three times in that stretch held teams in the 40s. The Bulls' games are usually close right down to the wire.
Saturday's game is not only important to West Virginia's NCAA tournament resume, it will also help determine where the Mountaineers are seeded in the Big East tournament that begins Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
West Virginia can still finish eighth and earn a Tuesday bye, but it would take both a win at USF and a loss by Seton Hall (also 8-9 in the league) at last-place DePaul later in the day. If that doesn't happen, WVU will finish either ninth or 10th and play No. 16 DePaul or probable No. 15 Providence on Tuesday.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.