MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Call him an optimist if you will, but Bob Huggins hasn't given up hope.His West Virginia basketball team is at .500 overall and below that break-even mark in Big 12 play, but he is still entertaining thoughts of an NCAA tournament berth."We've kind of been in this situation before,'' Huggins said Friday. "It hasn't been maybe as dire as what this one is, but we've been in this situation before where we needed to beat people when people came in here.''"Here'' would be the Coliseum and beginning today the Mountaineers (12-12, 5-6 Big 12) begin what constitutes the most home-friendly stretch of their conference season. It's a bit difficult to recognize that, given that on Sunday WVU once again gets on a plane and travels for a Monday night game at Kansas State, but three of their next four games are at home.
It begins today with a 4 p.m. game against Texas Tech (9-13, 2-9) at the Coliseum, a contest that will be televised by the Big 12 Network (locally on WQCW). After the Monday game at Kansas State there are consecutive home games with Oklahoma State next Saturday and Baylor the following Wednesday.West Virginia is coming off a disheartening 80-60 loss at Baylor Wednesday night in which the Mountaineers just folded in the second half, giving up 49 points. It was a four-point game with under 15 minutes to play and an eight-point deficit with less than 12 to go before the Bears ran away."We just didn't compete,'' sophomore guard Jabarie Hinds said. "Everything they got was easy buckets.''In order to turn things around in the seven regular-season games that remain (along with the Big 12 tournament), issues like that will have to be corrected, of course. The Mountaineers are still turning the ball over at critical times and both their rebounding and shooting tend to be sporadic.Still, if they can address those issues, Huggins maintains it is not too late to make a run at what would be the team's sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance and the eighth in the last nine years. On the flip side, though, is that failing to make any sort of run might jeopardize even the school's nine-year run of postseason appearances. Teams no longer are required to have a winning record in order to play in the NIT or one of the pay-to-play tournaments, but few teams with losing records are afforded even consideration.So how do the Mountaineers get into the tournament mix? Well, they beat good teams and improve their standing in the RPI. After today's game with Tech, West Virginia has plenty of opportunities to do that."We've got an opportunity now, playing teams with a lot higher RPIs, to increase our RPI,'' Huggins said. "Our strength of schedule's going to be fine. We just have to get our RPI up to where it's in the ballpark.''Indeed, despite West Virginia's record, the Mountaineers are still among the top 100 teams in the RPI, settling in at No. 91 as of Friday according to the rankings at Statsheet.com. They are the only team ranked in the top 100 without a winning record, and that's thanks to a strength of schedule that is ranked No. 44 now and is projected to be No. 26 at season's end.The reason the strength of schedule will improve is because, after today's game with Texas Tech, the final six games are against teams ranked Nos. 6, 20, 22, 27, 46 and 54. It follows, then, that if West Virginia wins games, its RPI will improve, too. Teams with RPIs in the top 50 almost always are invited to the NCAA tournament. Those outside the top 50 to 55 rarely are.Whether West Virginia can make that rather steep climb of at least 40 spots in the RPI even with a string of wins is debatable, but Huggins at least holds that hope."The good thing about playing in a good league is you have more opportunities,'' Huggins said. "We do have opportunities.''
BRIEFLY: West Virginia beat Texas Tech two weeks ago today in Lubbock, forcing 22 turnovers, running out to a big early lead, then running away against at the end after the Red Raiders had cut the margin to four.
"We turned them over,'' Huggins recalled. "We turned them over early and then we turned them over late.''That's not surprising. Tech is dead last in the Big 12 in turnover margin.West Virginia continues to be without a player averaging double figures in points and it looks like the season may end that way. Aaric Murray (9.3) is the closest and would have to average 12.3 points over the final seven games to get back to 10.0.
The player with the best chance to get there might be freshman Eron Harris. The team's best scorer of late, Harris averages just 8.9 points over the entire season and would need to average 13.6 points over the final seven games to improve to 10.0. But since joining the starting lineup nine games ago he's averaging 14.3 points.The last time WVU didn't have a player average in double figures was 1944, when Earl Allara scored 181 points in 19 games for an 8-11 team.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.