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Fate is in their hands

By Staff | Jan 27, 2009

They pounded Iowa by 19 in the Las Vegas Invitational.

They handed Ohio State its worst non-conference home court loss in history, blasting the Buckeyes, 76-48.

But even those lofty accomplishments won’t necessarily qualify West Virginia University’s basketball team for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

While second-year coach Bob Huggins and his young Mountaineer team have the Mountain State excited, WVU finds itself playing in the toughest conference in the history of American college basketball.

Yes, the Big East Conference is that good.

It’s that deep.

Basketball experts say there is a good possibility nine of the league’s 16 members could earn berths in the 64-team field for March Madness. If that happens, it will be a first.

Thus, the goal for West Virginia is simple. Win as many Big East games as possible and hope it’s enough to land the Mountaineers in the top half of the conference standings.

There’s little doubt eight Big East teams will be invited to the NCAA’s Big Dance. But nine? Who knows. Huggins knows he doesn’t want to be sitting in that No. 9 position, which would put the Mountaineers on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

The road for West Virginia is filled with pitfalls. From the last day of January to the last day of the regular season, the schedule includes visits to Louisville (Jan. 31), Syracuse (Feb. 4) and Pittsburgh (Feb. 9), all games in which WVU will be the underdog. That will make the other road games — at Rutgers (Feb. 22), Cincinnati (Feb. 26) and South Florida (March 1) — virtual must-win games. WVU also needs to take care of business in the friendly confines of the Coliseum, which will witness visits by Providence (Feb. 7), Villanova (Feb. 13), Notre Dame (Feb. 18) DePaul (March 4) and Louisville (March 7), all games in which WVU will be favored.

Is there a magic number of wins WVU must reach? Only the NCAA committee can answer that question. Suffice it to say WVU needs to have no worse than a .500 record in Big East play and absolutely cannot stumble in the first round of the Big East Tournament. It’s hard to imagine any team finishing with a winning conference mark and reaching the Elite Eight of the Big East Tournament not making the NCAA field.

Now that we understand the mission, it’s time to discuss how it best can be accomplished.

There are virtually two givens in every Mountaineer game — that senior Alex Ruoff and junior Da’Sean Butler are going to perform at a consistently high level and occasionally even rise to spectacular form.

They will carry WVU as far as it will go. How far that is will depend on the level of development of the other key players. It would be a major boost if junior Joe Mazzulla returns to the lineup as WVU would get an instant burst of talent, enthusiasm and some much-needed depth.

Even bigger keys are the development of the two freshmen who are playing key roles. It’s obvious both Darryl “Truck” Bryant and Devin Ebanks have bright futures in Morgantown. Both have shown occasional flashes of brilliance in their short time in the program.

But each also has played at times like, well, freshmen, getting lost in the shuffle during crucial minutes.

Huggins has a reputation for bringing out the best in such athletic, erratic players. Yet time is running short for him to develop their skills for a March Madness run.

The other members of the roster are role players who will perform adequately but seldom rise above that level enough to become a game-breaker.

If you’re looking for a potential surprise, sophomore John Flowers best fits the bill, but he is yet to dominate a game.

Huggins is one solid recruiting class away from turning West Virginia into one of the elite teams in the Big East.

But that recruiting class won’t be announced until after the season is over and will have no impact on the rest of this year’s games.

Besides, West Virginia isn’t going to be the only team that decides its fate.

How’s that, you ask?

We pretty well know that Big East members Marquette, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Syracuse and Connecticut are going to receive NCAA Tournament bids. That leaves two, possibly three invitations remaining for the likes of WVU, Notre Dame, Providence, Villanova and Cincinnati. Should WVU start faltering and Providence or Cincinnati catch fire, the Mountaineers could find themselves on the outside looking in.

At the worst, WVU will receive a bid to the National Invitational Tournament. But even in winning the championship of that event in 2007, West Virginia fans realized the NIT isn’t the NCAA. No one wants to play second fiddle. You want to be invited to the big dance.

For West Virginia to receive such an invitation, it must develop its young talent, win the rest of its home games and emerge victorious in the opening round of the Big East Tournament.

Only time will tell.

Contact Dave at dpoe@graffitiwv.com