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Big East schedule balances for WVU

By Jack Bogaczyk

There's a medical term that really puts into perspective how West Virginia stands with almost a month left in the Big East Conference basketball regular season.

It's "false positive."

Much has been made - rightfully so - about the fact that WVU was going to finish its regular season playing seven of nine games against Associated Press-ranked Big East teams.

It's the toughest finishing stretch in the nation's toughest hoops league this side of the NBA.

The Mountaineers (15-8, 6-5 Big East) have dropped back-to-back games to Villanova and Pitt, two of the four Big East teams in this week's AP top 10. Coach Bob Huggins has long ago detailed his team's recurring issues, led by the fact the Mountaineers don't often shoot it very straight.

Barring a major collapse, WVU is going to make the NCAA Tournament field. Huggins' team is too high in the RPI and too strong in the strength of schedule measurement (including non-conference play, which the selection committee feels is significant) to not make the 68-team bracket.

However, while it's instructive to look at the final "7-of-9" for a WVU club still looking for more than role players this deep into the season, it's also crucial to look at what the Mountaineers have been through in league play.

Using the AP poll again as a gauge, and, starting with last Saturday as the tough 7-of-9 ranked stretch started, well, West Virginia had played the easiest Big East schedule to that point.

Entering last weekend, only two (Georgetown, Louisville) of WVU's first nine conference games were against ranked teams - the fewest of any club. Thirteen of the 16 teams had played at least four ranked Big East teams. Louisville and Cincinnati played three.

Conversely, Marquette (14-9, 5-5) and St. John's (13-9, 5-5) had played seven of their first 10 against AP-ranked teams. The Red Storm played eight consecutive poll-sitters (including a win over Duke). Marquette played 7-of-8 in one stretch, the exception being last-place DePaul.

The Golden Eagles and Red Storm meet only two and three ranked teams, respectively, the rest of the way. Might that mean a climb in the standings from just below the midpoint? Perhaps.

Using WVU's 7-of-9 run, with the finishing stretch that began last Saturday, no other Big East team was going to face more than five ranked foes.

And let's give kudos to the Big East schedule-makers, who had to try and figure out last summer who would and wouldn't be good and make appropriate pairings in tiers and repeat matchups this season.

For the season, every Big East team will play eight, nine or 10 AP-ranked teams. Syracuse, St. John's and Villanova had the most (using the polls of the week a game is played and projecting the current poll into the future), with 10.

So, what about West Virginia?

I think the Mountaineers can go 8-10 in the conference and still make the NCAA, so long as there aren't 10 other teams ahead of them in the standings. At 9-9, they're a lock.

I think the Big East is going to get 10 bids. Someone among Cincinnati, Marquette and St. John's is going to get squeezed to the NIT.

Cincinnati has the toughest schedule left among those three, but also had a very poor non-league schedule that will hurt with selectors. St. John's plays at Cincinnati and Milwaukee. Marquette has the Bearcats at home, too.

Some of the biggest Big East games left will be played in the middle of the standings, and you can count eighth-place WVU's dates among those.

*  *  *

ONE TEAM among the Big East contenders will be getting a fifth in New York City ... and it's not what you're probably thinking, although it could be intoxicating.

Look at the Big East Tournament bracket for March 8-12 at Madison Square Garden. The fifth seed appears to be a great place to start.

Consider the aforementioned 11 NCAA contenders in the league. There's a distinct line of demarcation in the Big East standings ... like about 30 spots in the RPI between the 11th team (Marquette) and 12th (Seton Hall).

On the opening Tuesday of the tournament, the teams seeded ninth through 16th play, and that means a game matching Nos. 12 and 13. The No. 5 seed gets that winner in the second round. Nos. 6, 7 and 8 might have to play one of those top 11 (including perhaps a St. John's on its quasi-home floor), barring an upset.

OK, so No. 5, with a win, has to play No. 4 on Thursday, but by then it's into the quarterfinals, with what could be an NCAA seed- or berth-solidifying win the day before.

Don't be surprised if some of these Big East coaches, beaten down by the season, aren't pleading for the fifth come the second week of March.

Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at jackb@dailymail.com or 304-348-7949.


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