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Mountaineers sweating out NCAA tourney decision

MORGANTOWN - The numbers and the wisdom of those who seem to generally know best all seem to point toward West Virginia having secured a place in the 68-team NCAA tournament field.

But it's certainly not a slam dunk or an otherwise ironclad sure thing, not with only six more wins than losses and a resume that includes eight defeats in the last 12 games. Teams have been left out before with similar negatives.

However, the Mountaineers (19-13) do have a considerable number of positives in their portfolio, many of them exactly those the NCAA tournament selection committee professes to want from the teams it is asked to consider. The major pundits who track such things - specifically ESPN's Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports' Jerry Palm - both have West Virginia in the field, primarily because of those numbers they know the committee likes to see.

That committee, though, is still made up of individual members with their own ideas of what constitutes a team worthy of an at-large bid. So until the announcements come shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday, no one knows for sure.

No one.

"I hope we did enough. I think we did enough,'' said West Virginia's Dominique Rutledge, sweating out his first selection process. "But I don't know.''

Truthfully, that pretty much sums up the feeling of everyone involved, from Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins right on down.

Huggins knows his team has a resume worthy of inclusion in the tournament and he talks confidently of getting one. The teams he has coached have made the field a rather astounding 18 of the last 19 years he has coached - his last 14 at Cincinnati and his first four at WVU (his 2006-07 Kansas State team did not).

But he's also been around long enough to see plenty of teams disappointed. He doesn't believe that will happen to this team, though, because Huggins is a student of the process and tailors his schedule just the way the selection committee wants to see it.

"We've played more games against top-100 people than anybody in the country,'' Huggins said. "They say play a tough schedule, we have. We've played more games against top-50 teams. We've done everything they've asked us to do other than maybe win a couple games.''

Here's basically what Huggins is hanging his hat on as far as his team's resume is concerned: strength of schedule and results against that schedule. Specifically, it is games against those top-100 teams.

Huggins was right when he said his team had played more (or at least as many) top-100 games than anyone in the country. That changes every day as the Rating Percentage Index changes and past opponents go in and out of the top-100, but through Wednesday's games the Mountaineers had played 20 such contests. No team has played more and only two (Connecticut and Vanderbilt) have played as many. West Virginia won nine of those games.

Also, dig deeper into the numbers and one will find that only two teams in the country - No. 4 Duke and No. 5 Michigan State, according to the RPI - played a schedule in which the average rank of its opponents was higher than West Virginia's. Only 13 (nine of them in the top 11) can claim that the average rank of the opponents they defeated was higher than the average rank of the opponents WVU beat.

Of course, as much as those numbers are compelling, West Virginia is still ranked just No. 51 in the RPI. Many teams have been ranked much worse than that and made the field, but it is still at least a small red flag.

And, of course, the selection of the field is not an exact science. For instance, the committee a few years ago took out of its formula a team's performance at the end of the season, so WVU's 4-8 record since mid-January shouldn't matter. It is the entire body of work, so a win over Kansas State in December should be looked at with the same scrutiny as an overtime loss to Connecticut in March.

But do committee members really ignore that, or is it like a jury asked not to consider evidence it has already seen?

Also, the field itself is ever changing. As conference tournaments continue to play out this week, there is always the chance that teams presumed to be automatic qualifiers will be beaten and fall into the at-large pool. Other teams could make significant runs and elevate themselves into that pool.

The bottom line is that it won't be known for sure until Sunday evening.

"I don't think we're in a bad position,'' junior center Deniz Kilicli said after West Virginia's overtime loss to Connecticut Wednesday in New York. "We have the RPI and the strength of schedule and all of that.

"But you never know.''

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

 

 


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