MORGANTOWN - If you happen to be among the dwindling few who still regard West Virginia's chances of making the NCAA tournament to be realistic, I come today offering doses of both reality and hope.The reality, of course, is that a team that has now lost seven of its last nine games and can finish with neither a winning Big East record nor 20 regular-season wins is, to say the least, swimming upstream.It would be easy to look at the situation and say there is still time, of course, and to do so would be correct. The fact is that of the roughly 320 schools playing Division I basketball, virtually none have been eliminated from contention given the available avenue of automatic qualifying through league tournaments.But let's be realistic here, OK? Nothing West Virginia has done of late indicates that this team is capable of winning what will almost certainly be five games in five days in the Big East tournament next week, so the route of the at-large is all that is available.
Here's where it gets murky, of course - determining just what would be required, short of a Big East tournament championship, to get the Mountaineers into their fifth straight NCAA event.Conventional wisdom right now says that winning the last two games of the regular season will not get it done. The fact is, even if WVU can win at home against DePaul tonight (probable) and at South Florida on Saturday (only possible), neither is going to be all that impressive on the resume. DePaul is No. 201 in the RPI and USF, while shockingly successful this season, is barely a Top 50 team (No. 46).That conventional wisdom, then, says that some sort of run in the Big East tournament will be required. And if the Mountaineers do, in fact, go into that event without an NCAA bid seemingly in hand, it would likely require at least two and perhaps three victories. The first will grab no one's attention because the opener is likely to be against a team like Providence (No. 158). The second would be significant if it were against, say, a Louisville (No. 21), but ot so much against a Cincinnati (No. 77) or a South Florida.
Still, winning out in the regular season and winning two in New York would provide a four-game win streak, 21 wins overall, a winning recordagainst Big East teams - albeit not in the regular season - and hope. It's actually not out of the realm of possibility - except, of course, for the not insignificant fact that West Virginia hasn't played of late like a team capable of winning four in a row.Therein rests the biggest obstacle: Playing well. Bob Huggins has been maintaining for the last six weeks that West Virginia wasn't in bad shape as far as tournament hopes are concerned, as long as the Mountaineers won some games. Unfortunately, they haven't.Still, if one chooses not to get overly wrapped up in how miserably this team has played of late and maintains the hope that things can turn around, we come to you today with statistics that just might indicate that WVU's plight is not as dire as it might seem on the surface.
For that we go to the RPI, that mathematical behemoth that the NCAA selection committee swears is only one of many tools used to select the field, but is so often cited as the end-all. West Virginia's official RPI on Monday was 50, give or take the results of Monday night. That's not good, but it's not awful, either. Fifties have made the tournament before and will again. Southern Cal made it at No. 67 just last year, Marquette at No. 64, Clemson at No. 57.The bad news is that even with a string of wins that RPI might not move much, given that West Virginia's next three games figure to be against DePaul, USF and perhaps Providence. In fact, winning might even drop the rating.If you want hope, though, dig deeper into the numbers.Jerry Palm, who along with ESPN's Joe Lunardi is probably the most comprehensive of the so-called bracketologists, puts together what he calls the Nitty Gritty Report on the CBSSports.com website. A variation of it is used by the selection committee.
And if you're wondering how Lunardi and Palm have kept West Virginia in the tournament field throughout this losing skid, those are the numbers that provide some insight.Like these:The average RPI of the teams West Virginia has played this season is No. 93. That might not sound great, but like the numbers that follow you will be surprised: Only four teams that are ranked higher than WVU in the RPI have played a schedule with a higher average opponent RPI - No. 3 Duke (89), No. 4 Michigan State (91) and No. 30 Connecticut (89).The average RPI of the 17 teams West Virginia has beaten is No. 123. Again, doesn't sound off the charts, but only eight higher-ranked teams have a better average RPI for their defeated opponents - five of the top six in the RPI, along with No. 15 Michigan, No. 25 Alabama and No. 30 UConn (if you're wondering why UConn remains strong in the bracket at 17-11, that's why). No one has a better average RPI among their wins than No. 99.And WVU's average loss this season has been to teams with an RPI average of No. 50. Of the roughly 49 teams with a better RPI than WVU, 27 have lost to teams whose average RPI is worse than that.
Now, throw in the schedule itself. West Virginia has played 17 games against Top 100 teams (not to mention 15 in most of the predicted NCAA brackets). Only three higher-rated teams in the RPI have played more - No. 15 Michigan, No. 23 Vanderbilt and UConn (again). All have played 18 Top 100 teams, just one more than WVU. And while West Virginia are pretty evenly distributed among teams from 1-25 (5), 26-50 (7) and 51-100 (6), 11 of Vanderbilt's 18 were against teams in that last group.Oh, so simply playing a tough schedule isn't enough? Well, West Virginia has eight wins against the Top 100 and only 21 teams have more. Seven of those have just one more, six have two more. Likewise, only 21 have more than WVU's four wins against Top 50 teams.What does it all mean? Well, if West Virginia continues to lose it won't mean squat. As has been the case for six weeks now, teams will pass the Mountaineers by. But truth be told, two of the biggest negatives working against WVU - its current 7-9 Big East record and its 2-7 record in recent games - aren't actually on the committee's list of criteria. Really, they aren't. It's supposed to be the body of work. Period.And believe it or not, the Mountaineers have a pretty good one already stored up. They would be wise, however, to add to it.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.