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In middle of pack in Big East, WVU looks for a strong finish

By Jack Bogaczyk

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- It isn't keeping up with the Joneses that concerns West Virginia's basketball team in these final two weeks of the Big East regular season.

It's keeping up with the middlemen in the conference standings.

On Sunday, the Big East rested, and going into another huge "Big Monday" tonight - Syracuse-Villanova at the Wells Fargo Center - half of the 16 teams have five or six losses.

The Mountaineers (17-9, 8-6) were among those eight, following Saturday's impressive dismantling of eighth-ranked Notre Dame, 72-58 at the WVU Coliseum. The Big East is such that, well, let Coach Mike Brey explain how his Fighting Irish (21-5, 10-4) view it from second place.

"The back end is starting to come back upon us a bit," Brey said after St. John's topped first-place Pitt and then Notre Dame fell here to stay two games behind the Panthers (24-3, 12-2). "On this road trip, 2-1 (for ND) is probably about as good as you honestly can expect to do in a thing like this."

In the Big East, coaches need to mix realism with their Xs and Os. Saturday marked a rarity in the conference's 32-year history to have three league games go to overtime on the same day.

The degree of difficulty in WVU's finishing schedule has been well documented. When Coach Bob Huggins' team visits Pitt on Thursday, it will be its fifth game against a ranked team in the last six dates.

In beating the Fighting Irish, West Virginia not only made 13 of its first 16 shots in the second half to build a lead on more than emotion, it seemed to find something that had been missing.

Desperation?

"It was about working after practice, before practice," WVU forward Kevin Jones said after his fifth double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) of the season - and first against a Big East contender. "We're taking this thing seriously. We're playing for our lives right now, our NCAA Tournament lives."

It would seem that with no worse than an 8-10 Big East finish, and considering the non-conference strength of schedule (top 10) and a 6-6 record against the RPI top 50, that WVU has one of the 37 at-large spots in hand.

However, Jones and Co. do not want to go into Selection Sunday in the 18-13 neighborhood. Nor do the Mountaineers want to go into the Big East tournament as the last seed among the conference's 11 NCAA contenders.

The opinion here is that among WVU, Cincinnati (21-6, 8-6) and Marquette (16-11, 7-7), the Mountaineers are in; the other two still have some work to do. The Bearcats' non-league schedule was dreadful; Marquette is 3-9 against the RPI top 50.

WVU's schedule also is more testy than a couple of those other middlemen.  Check it out:

Syracuse (9-6) - at Villanova, at Georgetown, DePaul;

West Virginia (8-6) - at Pitt, at Rutgers, Connecticut, Louisville;

Connecticut (8-6) - Marquette, at Cincinnati, at WVU, Notre Dame;

Cincinnati (8-6) - at Georgetown, Connecticut, at Marquette, Georgetown;

Marquette (7-7) - at Connecticut, Providence, Cincinnati, at Seton Hall.

I didn't include St. John's, because the Red Storm (17-9, 9-5) has a finish of DePaul, at Villanova, at Seton Hall and USF. Besides, with signature wins over Duke and Pitt, Coach Steve Lavin's team likely has put an exclamation point on its NCAA resume.

WVU, UConn and the Bearcats are in a three-way tie for eighth place. That line is a major border crossing, since teams 9-16 have to play on Day 1 of the Big East tournament.

"It's very hard," Jones said when asked about WVU's mindset after recent struggles against quality teams. "It's either (play better), or lose. It's one of the two. We're far from where we want to be right now, but I think winning (over ND) was a great shot for us."

Pitt has won 22 of its last 23 at home, and WVU's date Sunday at Rutgers (13-13, 4-10) is the ultimate trap game, considering when and where it comes. A UConn visit on March 2 to the Coliseum is large, because a few days later it could be a standings and seeding tiebreaker.

WVU has lost those potential tiebreakers to Syracuse, St. John's and Marquette, but owns one over Cincinnati.

Jones acknowledged what beating Notre Dame meant for impressing the NCAA committee, not to mention the emotional lift it gave WVU.

One key was the Mountaineer board work. For the first time this season, WVU won when it was beaten on the boards, but the 39-38 margin wasn't one of those 10 (St. John's, Marquette), 7 (Syracuse), 6 (Villanova) deficiencies, or worse.

"Pitt's a very hard team, especially up there," Jones said, "but Notre Dame showed Pitt can be beaten at home (56-51 last month). We've just got to play the whole 40 minutes. We played the first half really well here against Pitt and the second half was back and forth, but the last five minutes their seniors stepped up and took over.

"The rebounding, they beat us by something like 12 (40-28). We can't let that happen. We've got to stay after it. We've got to keep their crowd out of it as much as possible."

Jones said the Mountaineers "try not to think" they're in the NCAA field yet, but they know the computations. While others look at WVU's postseason worthiness, Jones said the 'Eers should look in the mirror.

"It's tough not being the same (31-7 Final Four) team as last year," the junior New Yorker said, "and we know we don't have the talent level and leadership we had. But for some reason, we find ourselves at times not playing as hard as we could.

"And that's our problem. If we play hard for 40 minutes, we can be a really good team. It's up to us."

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


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