West Virginia Keeps Making its Case
Joe Mazzulla and West Virginia will face Georgetown in Saturday night\'s Big East final. (Michael Heiman/Getty Images)
NEW YORK -- There's only one thing left that matters at the Big East tournament: Whether West Virginia can distinguish itself enough to win a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday. The Mountaineers, who face Georgetown in Saturday night's final, are trying to win this trophy for the first time in school history, too, and I'm sure that's a big deal back in Morgantown. But the final No. 1 seed is what's truly important, because No. 1 seeds have won 60 percent of national championships since the field expanded to 64, including the last three titles in a row. Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse are already on the top line of the S-Curve. Does the fourth spot go to Duke or West Virginia*?
(* Ohio State and Kansas State have an outside shot at a No. 1, but I really can't see the committee making a realistic argument for them over the Blue Devils or Mountaineers, so I'm not going to indulge it here, either.)
Duke has been penciled into that spot for weeks, and it's possible that by winning the ACC regular season and reaching the ACC tournament final, the Blue Devils will be viewed as a No. 1 lock by the selection committee. Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins is one of the folks who disagrees -- strongly -- with that line of thinking.
"Nobody goes through what we go through in this league," he told SI.com on Friday, after his team beat Notre Dame 53-51 in the semifinals. "I learned a long time ago that I'm not on the committee. But I mean, to think we're not [a No. 1]? By the time we're done with this tournament, our strength of schedule is going to be in the top five in the country. We're going to be in the top five in the RPI. We've done everything they say to do and won.
"Who else would have sat in Newark on Christmas Day [before a game at Seton Hall], and then been in West Lafayette on New Year's Eve [before a game at Purdue]? We went and played people. You ever been in West Lafayette on New Year's Eve? Trust me -- it was only about 26 below."
Huggins' team didn't fare well in the Indiana Arctic, losing that road game to the Boilermakers, but West Virginia's roster of quality non-league wins (over Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Ohio State) is better than that of Duke's (over Gonzaga). The Mountaineers have no bad losses on their resume (whereas Duke fell to N.C. State), and their RPI (4) is only two spots behind Duke's (2). Their strength of schedule rank (2) is also five spots ahead of Duke's (7).
West Virginia is closing strong, too: it beat Georgetown and Villanova (in Philly) to close the regular season, and would win the Big East tournament with a run through Cincinnati (RPI: 59), Notre Dame (RPI: 43) and Georgetown RPI: 9). Duke, on the other hand, hasn't beaten an NCAA tournament team since Virginia Tech on Feb. 21, and would win the ACC tournament by beating Virginia (RPI: 126), Miami (RPI: 106) and either Georgia Tech (RPI: 40) or N.C. State (RPI: 96). The Blue Devils should pray that they meet Tech in the final -- otherwise their RPI could actually get worse. With such lackluster competition in the ACC, it's unclear if sweeping that league's regular-season and tourney titles is actually better than finishing second in the Big East and then first at Madison Square Garden.
Where West Virginia could fail is the eye test: Whereas Duke has often played fluid (and pretty) offensive basketball down the stretch, the Mountaineers have tended to clunk their way to victories, and have let lesser teams (such as Cincy and Notre Dame) stay in games due to lapses in focus and intensity. "I'm not very happy about it," Huggins said of his team allowing the Irish to hang around until the final shot, which was an errant three-point attempt by Tory Jackson. "We're going to try to keep fixing it. But at the end of the day, we're 26-6, playing for a Big East championship."
That's mostly because of star senior forward Da'Sean Butler, who keeps rescuing them with late-game heroics. Butler has carried them through the Big East tournament, banking in the game-winner against Cincinnati, and scoring 24 of their 53 points against Notre Dame. Aspects of West Virginia's offense are ugly -- Example A being Cam Thoroughman's failed breakaway dunk/layup attempt with 10:17 left, when he leapt about five inches short of the rim and missed, sending his bench into fits of uncontrollable laughter -- but Butler is the exception. He consistently makes brilliant plays in crunch time, and could be on the verge of having a huge NCAA tournament.
"These are Da'Sean's last few games, and he definitely wants to go out on top," said fellow forward Kevin Jones. "He's doing the best he can to make sure that happens."
After Friday's win was in the books, Jones skipped around the Garden floor making a "No. 1" sign with one hand. For a No. 1 seed, I asked?
"For needing one more win for the Big East championship," he said.
The other thing could -- and probably should -- come with it.