WVU basketball: Mountaineers focused on strong finish
NORMAN, Okla. - There really isn't any question about what West Virginia wants to do with the final two games in the regular season. The Mountaineers, who just ended an untimely three-game losing streak, want to win both and go to Kansas City next week for the Big 12 Tournament with a three-game winning streak.
It's what the Mountaineers think they can do with two more wins that makes this part of the season so special. WVU (16-13, 8-8 Big 12) believes a win in tonight's 7 p.m. game at Oklahoma (ESPNU) and a win at home Saturday against No. 8 Kansas gets the team into the NCAA Tournament - regardless of what happens in Kansas City.
"We play in the toughest conference in college basketball right now," point guard Juwan Staten said.
"Two more wins for us puts us over .500 in the league. I think that does it for us, especially with our strength of schedule and the teams we played and the teams we beat. I think two wins does it."
If it happens that way, WVU will have a signature victory against the Jayhawks, the Big 12's 10-time defending regular-season champion, and a season sweep of the Sooners (21-8, 10-6). WVU would also own wins against certain NCAA team Iowa State, likely NCAA team Kanas State and surging Baylor.
The Mountaineers would have six wins against the RPI's top 50, but all six would have come in conference play. WVU's best RPI win in non-conference play was against William & Mary (125), which was an 82-45 win at the Civic Center in which the Tribe shot 25.5 percent
At present, WVU is No. 88 in the RPI and projects to finish with the 41st-most difficult schedule. Historically, both numbers need to improve to help WVU's at-large chances, but two more wins could do just that.
In fact, the Mountaineers seem to believe a 1-1 finish, and some success in the conference tournament, might be enough.
"I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that, let's say we finish 9-9, that we can't get a NCAA Tournament bid," coach Bob Huggins said. "If (9-9) happens, you think we're probably going to finish ahead of a couple people who are pretty good, I think, in the best league in the country."
The league's been so good this season that the Mountaineers woke up Tuesday still alive for something as grand as a tie for second place in the final standings. A 10-8 WVU could have ended up tied with Iowa State, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas State, who could have all ended up going 0-2 because WVU and Oklahoma are the only teams in that group playing one another in the final week.
That tie is unlikely, of course, but a 10-8 WVU would still be in position for no worse than No. 6 seed in the Big 12 Tournament, which means a day off on the opening day of the event.
A 9-9 WVU team could finish ahead of or even with Oklahoma State (20-10, 8-9) and Baylor (19-10, 7-9 before Tuesday's home game against Iowa State). The Cowboys finish on the road Saturday against Iowa State while the Bears play at Kansas State.
That said, if three teams finish 9-9, WVU could drop out of the top six. If just WVU and Oklahoma State are tied for sixth, the Cowboys would win the tiebreaker by virtue of a 2-0 record against the Mountaineers.
If it's just WVU and Baylor tied for sixth, a second tiebreaker would be needed because they split the regular-season games. The decision would be made by the best record against the highest team in the standings, and WVU could take that one by beating Kansas and splitting that season series. Baylor was 0-2 against the Jayawks, who will come to the Coliseum without center Joel Embiid.
If WVU, Baylor and Oklahoma State are tied, Baylor wins the tiebreaker by having the best record in a round-robin play among the three teams. Oklahoma State would be next and WVU would end up as the No. 8 seed.
The top six teams are off the first day of the Big 12 Tournament, but falling out might not necessarily be bad for the Mountaineers and postseason potential. As they No. 7 seed, they'd draw TCU, which is winless in Big 12 play this season and has lost to WVU by five and 16 points this season. If nothing else, it could give WVU another win.
The Mountaineers are intent on steering clear of that, though, by finishing 2-0, finishing ahead of Oklahoma State and Baylor and taking care of the NCAA Tournament along the way.
"I just think if we win the next two games, we're in," said guard Eron Harris, whose 3-pointer at the end of regulation and two more 3s in overtime led the way to a 91-86 win against the Sooners last month to snap a 16-game losing streak against ranked teams.
"Regardless what our record is right now, we've got to focus and win the next two games. If we do that, we're in the tournament. Your chances of winning the (Big 12) tournament aren't big. It's the best league in the nation and everyone going in doesn't have the same chance to win. We've got to get these two games. These are the two most important games of the season right now, the next two games."
SOPHOMORE GUARD Terry Henderson, out with an illness for the past three games, will travel with the team to Oklahoma. Whether he will play has yet to be determined. Henderson is third on the team in scoring, averaging 12.1 points per game. He, Staten and Harris are the only three players on WVU's roster averaging double figures in scoring.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.