Aaric Murray (left) and Deniz Kilicli helped the Mountaineers defeat Texas Tech on Saturday.
MORGANTOWN - Deniz Kilicli has a fairly straightforward and simple response when asked if he and his West Virginia teammates still think there's the possibility of an NCAA tournament berth in their immediate future.
"Yeah,'' Kilicli said Saturday, a short time after he'd put up his best performance of the season in a win over Texas Tech. "We wouldn't play [if we didn't believe that].''
Well, here's where the "put up or shut up" time begins. The Mountaineers have six games remaining in the regular season, all against teams with significantly better resumes than their own. Win a bunch of those and perhaps West Virginia finds itself flirting on the NCAA bubble at the end.
Fail and perhaps there's not even a consolation postseason tournament berth out there for a team that might not have won as many as it loses.
It begins tonight when the Mountaineers (13-12, 6-6 Big 12) visit Manhattan, Kansas, to take on No. 10 Kansas State (20-5, 9-3). The 9 p.m. game is a part of Big Monday on ESPN. It also marks WVU coach Bob Huggins' first return to Bramlage Coliseum since he coached the Wildcats for one season prior to coming to West Virginia.
Tonight isn't a must-win for the Mountaineers, who have five regular-season games and the Big 12 tournament following this one in order to put together a winning streak. But eventually they have to begin beating good teams, which is something they have not yet done in conference play.
WVU's six league wins were accomplished by a 6-0 sweep of the three teams at the bottom of the standings - TCU, Texas and Texas Tech. The six losses have come in the only six games the Mountaineers have played against the teams in the top six spots in the standings. Each of the six remaining games is a rematch of those, including Kansas State's 65-64 win in Morgantown on Jan. 12.
Realistically, it would probably take at least four wins in the final six games and some sort of run in the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City beginning March 13 even to get West Virginia near the NCAA tournament bubble, much less actually into the field for the sixth straight season.
In other words, it's a longshot for a team that has just one win over a team in the RPI Top 100 (Eastern Kentucky is No. 70), but whose games from here on out all represent chances to get more.
"We still think we have a shot at the NCAA tournament,'' Kilicli said. "We've just got to win a lot. We can do that.''
It would help if Kilicli continued to play the way he has in the past two weeks. He's not always scoring a ton - although his 25 points in Saturday's 66-64 win over Texas Tech were a career high - but he's become such a force under the basket that he requires extra attention.
That Kilicli is playing as well as he is of late perhaps is a nod toward his focus. The problem with the Mountaineers this season, though, has been that it's never a sure thing that everyone is going to be focused.
"[Talent is] not the issue with our team. Our team has the talent to win all these games,'' Kilicli said. "It's just a matter of are we going to play the way we're supposed to play?
"I'm going to do what I do. I'm going to try to play my best. The rest of it, I don't know. I don't know who's going to come and play, who's not going to come and play. That's not my problem. I'm just going to do my part of the job the best I can. I don't worry about the rest of it. That's Huggs' job.''
BRIEFLY: Kansas State is fresh off of a 20-point home win over Baylor Saturday night, the same team that beat West Virginia by 20 three days earlier.
Huggins downplayed the trip to Kansas State on a personal level, and for obvious reasons. First, he was there just one year and has been gone six.
When the Mountaineers played Kansas State in Wichita last season, Huggins was actually greeted warmly. And why not? He began the revival of a Kansas State basketball program that was all but irrelevant before he arrived.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.