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No NCAA Tourney Worries for WVU

March 3, 2011

MORGANTOWN - With Wednesday's 65-56 victory against Connecticut, West Virginia moved into a 6th-place tie with Cincinnati and Georgetown (two teams it has beaten) in the Big East Conference with one game to play - Saturday's home date against Louisville.

That's significant news for a couple of reasons.

The top four teams in the final league standings are awarded double byes in the Big East Tournament, while those 5-8 earn a single bye in college basketball's toughest league finale. If you're playing on the first day of that meat grinder, the chances are really good you won't be playing on the last one.

Want UConn coach Jim Calhoun's thoughts on that? His team, which is ranked No. 16 in the nation in both polls, just fell out of the top 8 in its own league and might well be looking at a Tuesday game at Madison Square Garden next week.

''I said, kiddingly, I'm going to skip the Big East Tournament and go to an easier one - the NCAA Tournament,'' he said.

Back to the Mountaineers (19-10 overall, 10-7 Big East) who are one of two teams in the country - St. John's is the other - to win at least three games against teams in the top 10 in RPI (Ratings Percentage Index, a formula used by the NCAA as a seeding aid on Selection Sunday). Those victims were Notre Dame (9), Georgetown (8), and Purdue (7). Going into Wednesday's game, Connecticut was 19th. West Virginia, if you're wondering, was No. 22.

What does all this mean? Well, it means the fears the Mountaineers aren't even going to make the tournament that were very realistic not that long ago, may be put to bed.

Remember the selection committee also takes into account the "right-now" factor (how a team is playing in its last 10) and, right now, the Mountaineers are 6-4 in those games, including two victories against top 20 in the RPI and Louisville offering a chance for a third.

''It was good to get a statement win,'' point guard Joe Mazzulla said of Wednesday's game. ''We have one more and we really think we can win it.''

So, West Virginia, along with the likelihood of as many as 10 other Big East teams, will be going dancing.

Now the Mountaineers are simply playing for a higher seed.

As for Monday's game, it looked as if it was a defensive switch back to the point drop late in the second half that helped West Virginia pull away from what had been a 56-53 game with 2:50 remaining to win by nine, but Calhoun disputed that.

''We were prepared for that,'' he said. ''We've played 160 straight minutes against match-up zone (including the three games prior) so we've seen that kind of thing. I'm much more concerned about the poor shot selection. One, I have no idea what (defense) they're in because we came down and shot a 26-foot 3-pointer. They could have all fallen down. Did it make us change? Sure. Always give the other team credit; they're doing something, too. But we've faced enough of that - I don't think it affected us.''

It was something else, Calhoun said.

West Virginia's strength, led by the gritty Mazzulla and his 18 points, four rebounds, five assists, and one steal (that coming as he was sliding up the court on his elbows), was the difference.

''They out-toughed us,'' Calhoun said. ''We need to play physical inside and get some rebounds (WVU won the rebounding edge, 34-30). You don't expect the game to get away from you with 2:12 left, but we made some very poor choices on offense.''

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins had to do something after watching guards Kemba Walker (22 points) and Shabazz Napier (18) do whatever they wanted most of the night.

''The biggest thing is they had to run a lot of clock to get a shot,'' he said. ''They were coming down and getting pretty good shots and that's kinda how they like to play. They seemed like they got a little bit out of rhythm.''

Also, the Mountaineers, who missed five of their first seven free-throws, including Casey Mitchell missing both freebies on a technical, corrected that and closed out the game with Truck Bryant hitting seven straight from the line.

In the end, Mountaineers forward Cam Thoroughman was a little reflective, talking about how a big crowd (13,241) makes it easier to forget the earlier mistake you made in a game. Then, he said, getting to 19 victories, 10 in the conference, makes the crowd forget about some of the mistakes you made as a team earlier in the season.

Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at:

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