MORGANTOWN - Deniz Kilicli has a fairly straightforward and simple response when asked if he and his West Virginia teammates still think there's the possibility of an NCAA tournament berth in their immediate future.
"Yeah,'' Kilicli said Saturday, a short time after he'd put up his best performance of the season in a win over Texas Tech. "We wouldn't play [if we didn't believe that].''
Well, here's where the "put up or shut up" time begins. The Mountaineers have six games remaining in the regular season, all against teams with significantly better resumes than their own. Win a bunch of those and perhaps West Virginia finds itself flirting on the NCAA bubble at the end.
Fail and perhaps there's not even a consolation postseason tournament berth out there for a team that might not have won as many as it loses.
It begins tonight when the Mountaineers (13-12, 6-6 Big 12) visit Manhattan, Kansas, to take on No. 10 Kansas State (20-5, 9-3). The 9 p.m. game is a part of Big Monday on ESPN. It also marks WVU coach Bob Huggins' first return to Bramlage Coliseum since he coached the Wildcats for one season prior to coming to West Virginia.
Tonight isn't a must-win for the Mountaineers, who have five regular-season games and the Big 12 tournament following this one in order to put together a winning streak. But eventually they have to begin beating good teams, which is something they have not yet done in conference play.
WVU's six league wins were accomplished by a 6-0 sweep of the three teams at the bottom of the standings - TCU, Texas and Texas Tech. The six losses have come in the only six games the Mountaineers have played against the teams in the top six spots in the standings. Each of the six remaining games is a rematch of those, including Kansas State's 65-64 win in Morgantown on Jan. 12.
Realistically, it would probably take at least four wins in the final six games and some sort of run in the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City beginning March 13 even to get West Virginia near the NCAA tournament bubble, much less actually into the field for the sixth straight season.
In other words, it's a longshot for a team that has just one win over a team in the RPI Top 100 (Eastern Kentucky is No. 70), but whose games from here on out all represent chances to get more.