MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - In the aftermath of West Virginia's dismantling of No. 11 Iowa State Monday night at the Coliseum, it is perhaps time for a reality check.
The fact is, the Mountaineers still have a tough row to hoe in terms of accomplishing their goal of returning to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence. It is certainly not an impossible journey, but the climb is steep.
"We haven't accomplished anything yet and we know that,'' point guard Juwan Staten said.
Indeed, it is true that West Virginia has played better of late - dramatically better in many respects. Five games ago the Mountaineers were 11-9 overall and below .500 in the Big 12 at 3-4. They had just lost for the second time to Oklahoma State and were 1-4 in their five most recent games.
Oh, and they were facing five straight games against teams that were, at that moment, ranked in the Top 25. A repeat of last year's 13-19 record was looking far more likely than any postseason opportunity at all, much less the NCAA tournament.
A funny thing happened on the way down the tubes, though. In those next five games, the Mountaineers lost only to one of the best teams in the country, even playing now-No. 7 Kansas down to the final minutes on the road. There were wins over Baylor and Kansas State, which by the time they faced WVU had just dropped out of the Top 25, then a vanquishing of No. 21 Oklahoma in overtime. That mercifully broke a streak of 16 straight losses over two years to Top 25 teams.
And then came Monday's 102-77 rout of Iowa State, arguably the hottest team in the Big 12 and one that had just moved to No. 11 in the Associated Press poll. Suddenly, the only team in the Big 12 with more league wins than West Virginia (15-10, 7-5 Big 12) after Monday's games was Kansas.
It was enough to raise optimism even of Huggins, although with a caveat.
"We're still not where we need to be,'' he said. "But we're a heck of a lot closer.''
But just how close is West Virginia to the NCAA tournament discussion? Well, the only tangible barometer with a month to go in the regular season (and then the field-changing conference tournaments) is the Rating Percentage Index. According to the RPI compiled by StatSheet.com, the Mountaineers were No. 66 before Tuesday night's games. They had a strength of schedule rating of No. 52, which based upon their remaining schedule will rise to No. 31 by season's end. Those numbers, of course, shift with every game played by every team in the country.
While the NCAA tournament selection committee insists that the RPI is only one of many tools used to select the at-large teams in the tournament, it is generally a good gauge. A No. 66 ranking, more often than not, won't get the job done.
That's where West Virginia's schedule comes into play. While it is obviously among the most difficult in the country (perhaps as high as No. 31 out of 351 teams, as noted), it is a double-edged sword. Success against that schedule will obviously be rewarded, but that success will be hard to come by.