MORGANTOWN - If you happen to be among the dwindling few who still regard West Virginia's chances of making the NCAA tournament to be realistic, I come today offering doses of both reality and hope.
The reality, of course, is that a team that has now lost seven of its last nine games and can finish with neither a winning Big East record nor 20 regular-season wins is, to say the least, swimming upstream.
It would be easy to look at the situation and say there is still time, of course, and to do so would be correct. The fact is that of the roughly 320 schools playing Division I basketball, virtually none have been eliminated from contention given the available avenue of automatic qualifying through league tournaments.
But let's be realistic here, OK? Nothing West Virginia has done of late indicates that this team is capable of winning what will almost certainly be five games in five days in the Big East tournament next week, so the route of the at-large is all that is available.
Here's where it gets murky, of course - determining just what would be required, short of a Big East tournament championship, to get the Mountaineers into their fifth straight NCAA event.
Conventional wisdom right now says that winning the last two games of the regular season will not get it done. The fact is, even if WVU can win at home against DePaul tonight (probable) and at South Florida on Saturday (only possible), neither is going to be all that impressive on the resume. DePaul is No. 201 in the RPI and USF, while shockingly successful this season, is barely a Top 50 team (No. 46).
That conventional wisdom, then, says that some sort of run in the Big East tournament will be required. And if the Mountaineers do, in fact, go into that event without an NCAA bid seemingly in hand, it would likely require at least two and perhaps three victories. The first will grab no one's attention because the opener is likely to be against a team like Providence (No. 158). The second would be significant if it were against, say, a Louisville (No. 21), but
Still, winning out in the regular season and winning two in New York would provide a four-game win streak, 21 wins overall, a winning record
against Big East teams - albeit not in the regular season - and hope. It's actually not out of the realm of possibility - except, of course, for the not insignificant fact that West Virginia hasn't played of late like a team capable of winning four in a row.
Therein rests the biggest obstacle: Playing well. Bob Huggins has been maintaining for the last six weeks that West Virginia wasn't in bad shape as far as tournament hopes are concerned, as long as the Mountaineers won some games. Unfortunately, they haven't.
Still, if one chooses not to get overly wrapped up in how miserably this team has played of late and maintains the hope that things can turn around, we come to you today with statistics that just might indicate that WVU's plight is not as dire as it might seem on the surface.
For that we go to the RPI, that mathematical behemoth that the NCAA selection committee swears is only one of many tools used to select the field, but is so often cited as the end-all. West Virginia's official RPI on Monday was 50, give or take the results of Monday night. That's not good, but it's not awful, either. Fifties have made the tournament before and will again. Southern Cal made it at No. 67 just last year, Marquette at No. 64, Clemson at No. 57.