Mike Casazza: Big win just the latest for Carey's crew
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Sports being what they are and society being what it is, everything needs a label and needs it right away. It's like that when we've structured and fostered a culture of debate and absolutes and when we feast on social media and the immediacy it provides and requires.
So what happened Sunday night following the win West Virginia's women's basketball team picked up at Baylor was as inevitable as the triumph was spectacular. The proclamations came fast stating and it was the greatest win in program history.
Never mind WVU has beaten a team with a higher ranking before, both on the road and in a conference tournament. In the here and now, which is to say the only things that matter to many, it fed the appetite that's always starved for a superlative.
Not to say it wasn't a great win and a tremendous occasion for a program that once lost 50 straight games to ranked opponents. But the Mountaineers did end No. 2 Notre Dame's 21-game winning streak with a road win in February 2012, the same year the hosts would lose a second straight national championship game. WVU has never beaten a team with a better rank, and six players from that game helped end sixth-ranked Baylor's 35-game home winning streak two years later.
Before that, WVU won at No. 5 Louisville in 2009, the first road win against a top-five team, and at home against No. 4 Rutgers in 2008, the first win against a top-five team at any venue. Two years before that, WVU shocked No. 6 Rutgers in the semifinal of a stunning run to the final of the Big East Tournament. That was the second win ever against a top 10 team, and the previous one came 14 years earlier against No. 8 George Washington.
The point for coach Mike Carey, the architect of this success and a seamless transition from the elite Big East to the elite Big 12, is that it's not a simple conversation to have. There are options and there is cause for pause and deliberation.
"You're glad you're in that position," he said. "You don't want to be in a position where you get one big win and say, 'This has got to be the biggest win we've ever had,' because you've never had any others."
Carey has plenty to pick from now at home, on the road and in conference and NCAA tournaments. So ask the man with 270 wins in 13 seasons, 28 wins against ranked teams - there were 10 before him - and seven NCAA Tournament appearances - there were two before him - what is the biggest.
"I think this one is probably our biggest win," he said. "It's the most important one as far as having an opportunity to win the Big 12 conference."
It's a somewhat bold statement because, though that they shouldn't apologize for it, the Mountaineers are 26-3 overall, 15-2 in the Big 12 and ranked No. 6, as high as they've ever been with Carey and higher than they ever were with anyone else.
The team that beat Notre Dame won 24 games, including on in the NCAA tournament, and wasn't ranked until the final poll of the regular season. The team that beat Louisville finished 18-15 and was the last to miss the NCAA Tournament. The 2008 team that beat Rutgers won 25 games and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The 2006 team that beat Rutgers finished 15-16 and nearly won the Big East championship a day later in a nail-biter against No. 7 UConn.
This team, to be frank, is more talented and has more depth and plays better offense than any of those teams. But this team, thanks to Sunday's win, has a chance to do something that avoided those other teams.
"We've had some great wins for the program, but they weren't necessarily for the conference championship," Carey said. "I would say for having an opportunity to win a conference championship that this one is probably the best."
True, WVU played for the Big East title in 2006, but that was a just a heck of a week. A regular-season title is about something much longer and much more sustained, and WVU can parlay this into something beneficial for the NCAA Tournament.
WVU is tied with No. 9 Baylor for first place in the Big 12 standings. The Bears play tonight at Iowa State (20-8, 9-9). The Mountaineers play host to Kansas (12-17, 5-12) at 7 p.m. tonight in Senior Night for five players playing their final game at the Coliseum.
If WVU wins and Baylor loses, the Mountaineers win the conference title outright. They haven't won a league since 1989. If WVU and Baylor both win, or lose, then the two share the conference title, though Baylor would be the top seed for the weekend's conference tournament.
"Kansas is coming in here with nothing to lose," Carey said. "We've got everything to lose."
All of that leads to another one of those instant statements of fact. WVU hasn't played a bigger game this season than the one it plays tonight. The Jayhawks are the only other Big 12 team to beat Baylor this season.
"We've just got to stay focused, but I think this group will," Carey said. "I think the most important game honestly is this one. I think once we get a couple days off for rest and that and go into the tournament and go into the NCAAs, we'll be fine.
But (tonight) is probably my biggest concern. I knew we'd be ready for Baylor. I wasn't concerned. Win or lose, I knew we'd play hard and be ready. It's this one I'm a little concerned about. We can't take Kansas for granted. They're good enough to beat you."