MORGANTOWN - West Virginia's chances of returning to the NCAA tournament now seem bleak after losing seven of nine games and given that the Mountaineers won't finish with a winning record in Big East play or 20 wins overall.Still, WVU's chances of rallying over the final two games of the regular season, and then putting together a run in the league tournament sufficient enough to impress the selection committee, seem greater than its chances of doing something else:Finishing in the top half of the Big East standings and earning a first-round bye in the league tournament.That's pretty much gone, if not mathematically then at least realistically. In fact, the Mountaineers seem destined to finish probably in the No. 10 spot and open tournament play in the Tuesday session, March 6, at Madison Square Garden.
Still, to listen to at least some of West Virginia's players, they won't stop fighting, even with their goals slipping away."I know one thing. We're going to fight to the end until there's no more fight,'' said senior guard Truck Bryant. "We've got two more games left and that's the only thing we can look at. We threw a game away [against Marquette Friday night] and we can't go back. So we have to get ready for these next two games.''That begins Tuesday night in the final regular-season home game for seniors Bryant and Kevin Jones, a 7 p.m. contest against the Big East's last-place team, DePaul. The Blue Demons (11-17, 2-14 Big East) fell into sole possession of the cellar Saturday when they lost 73-71 at home to Providence.After that is Saturday's finale against South Florida in Tampa, Fla. The Bulls (18-11, 11-5) are 14-1 at home this season, including Sunday's 46-45 win over Cincinnati.The Tuesday game with DePaul, of course, may not be the final home game of the season. Unless WVU (17-12, 7-9) makes a significant run, it is likely to be playing in the NIT and at home.Bryant was asked if, after his team's struggles over the past six weeks, the Mountaineers are even in a position where they deserve to make the NCAA tournament."Yes,'' he said quickly. "I know we fight every day, work hard every day. At the end of the day, we just have to want it. I know this team wants it and I'll believe in them until the end. We just need to play and win games.''Even winning games, though, isn't likely to change West Virginia's place in the Big East standings, which today is a ninth-place tie with Connecticut. Both are 7-9 in the league with two games to play, a half-game behind eighth-place Seton Hall (8-9). The seven teams above those three have all clinched spots in the top eight and a first-round bye in the tournament.And while St. John's (6-10) is still mathematically alive for the eighth bye, realistically it is between only Seton Hall and UConn. Seton Hall can get to 9-9 with a win at DePaul Saturday, and UConn can get there with wins at Providence and at home against Pitt.But even if West Virginia wins its final two games to reach 9-9, the Mountaineers will lose any tiebreakers if either Seton Hall or UConn reaches that mark. They can finish eighth only if Seton Hall loses to DePaul, UConn loses to either Providence or Pitt, and the Mountaineers win out.Assuming that doesn't happen, West Virginia is most likely looking at the No. 10 seed and a Tuesday night game against Providence in the Big East tournament.
WVU could slip even lower than 10th, of course, although that doesn't seem likely unless the Mountaineers lose both games this week. St. John's has the best chance of passing West Virginia in the standings (or actually tying and winning the tie-breaker based on a regular-season win), but the Red Storm would likely need to beat both Pitt and Rutgers on the road, where it is 2-8 this season.If West Virginia does finish 10th, the No. 10-15 winner faces the No. 7 seed, which at the moment is Louisville, but could easily be Cincinnati, South Florida or Georgetown.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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