LUBBOCK, Texas - Well, it was a start. At this point in the season, West Virginia's basketball team can't be picky.You want artistic, go to a museum.You want overwhelming performances, watch Michigan or Kansas.You want easy, go to Staples and push that button from the commercials.
West Virginia just wants wins. And Saturday's 77-61 decision over Texas Tech was a win."A win is a win,'' point guard Juwan Staten said. "If it comes on a buzzer-beater, if it comes by 20 points, a win is a win. And we definitely need wins, so we'll take them however we can get them.''Saturday's win over Texas Tech at a beautiful building called the United Spirit Arena was as important as any West Virginia has had this season. Granted, there haven't been many, so the competition isn't all that fierce. But if there was a make-or-break game for the Mountaineers, this was it.Consider that at 9-11 coming into the game, the season was hanging by a thread. This was the start of a five-game stretch in which West Virginia plays the other three similarly-positioned Big 12 teams (in other words, at the bottom of the standings) four times.
Texas Tech is just not very good, frankly. The Red Raiders aren't TCU bad, but they aren't very good. And for a while they gave the Mountaineers a fight.Had West Virginia lost, it would be 9-12 today, 2-6 in the Big 12 and tied for the worst overall record in the league. With the win, though, the Mountaineers are suddenly at the top of that four-team jumble that also includes Texas, Texas Tech and TCU. They are a game closer not to joining the mix of six teams at the top of the league (although that's the ultimate goal), but to climbing out of that group of basement dwellers.And, for the second day in a row, it was enough to get Bob Huggins talking NCAA tournament again.Sure, it's still a long, long shot. But as far as he's concerned it's not a dead dream. If it were, he'd be in a real pickle because motivation would be terribly problematic.
"Somebody asked me if we were playing to get into the NIT,'' Huggins said.He basically scoffed at the notion."If we can make a run here,'' he said, before his thought rather deteriorated into talk of his team's strength of schedule, the difficult road games and how the NCAA supposedly takes all of that into consideration when drawing up the 68-team field.
"If we can get to 17, 18 [wins], play well in the conference tournament, then we're going to have a chance,'' Huggins said. "It's not over yet. At least that's what they tell you to do. They tell you to play a schedule. They want you to play a schedule. So you play a schedule.''Well, indeed West Virginia has played a schedule. The Mountaineers have faced both teams ranked No. 1 this week, Michigan and Kansas. They went across the country to face Gonzaga. They were somehow still in the Top 100 of the RPI going into Saturday's games despite being two games under .500. Their RPI strength of schedule is 17th. They have played fewer home games than virtually anyone else in the country.But the key to playing that kind of schedule, of course, is winning some of the games. To date, the Mountaineers have not. They are 0-8 against teams in the RPI Top 50.A win over Texas Tech isn't going to help those numbers. Nor will a win over Texas at home on Monday or TCU in a week back here in Texas. There's another game with Tech again shortly after that.But the idea isn't to earn an NCAA tournament berth by beating these teams, but beat these teams and build some momentum to have a chance against the teams that could come later. In the final three weeks of the season, the Mountaineers face each of the six teams at the top of the standings - three at home and three on the road. Win the home games in there, maybe steal one on the road and perhaps West Virginia is in that 17-18 range that Huggins points to.Win another in the conference tournament and suddenly the bubble is real.
"Obviously we're a long way away right now,'' Huggins said. "But if we can get on a run here, I think we've got a chance.''At this point, Huggins might be one of the few who believes that. Perhaps if the Mountaineers can beat Texas again on Monday, win again down here in Texas against TCU next week and then get things going just a little bit, they might have a chance.Which is why the win over Texas Tech here was the biggest of the season. Without that one, the chance would be gone.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1