By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
West Virginia University’s basketball season has gone from wondering what seed the Mountaineers will land in the NCAA Tournament this year to wondering if they will be in the NCAA Tournament at all.
“I don’t feel this comfortable at this point at all,” said Mountaineer senior forward Kevin Jones, who will be honored with guard Truck Bryant on Senior Night Tuesday against DePaul. “It’s going to take a whole lot to get into the tournament.
“If we win these next two games, we can be an NCAA Tournament team. The way we’re playing right now? No, we’re not an NCAA Tournament team.”
Jones was speaking after scoring only 12 points with six rebounds in a disheartening 61-60 home loss to Marquette.
Jones said he isn’t worried about seeing his chances to win Big East Player of the Year slipping along with WVU’s post-season chances.
“I don’t know about that stuff,” he said. “My main concern is getting us to the tournament.”
Bryant feels the same way. Asked if he worried about his team’s chances now, his answer was as simple and direct as the 25 points he rained on Marquette to end his shooting slump.
“Yes,” he said. “We need to win games. We are not playing to our capabilities. We are doing a poor job defensively, and I would put myself in that category, too.”
The season has unraveled in February for WVU. They have lost seven of nine games to fall to 17-11 and 7-9 in Big East play.
All of a sudden the focus is on what the Mountaineers can’t do rather than on what they can accomplish.
With the Marquette loss, they no longer can win 20 regular-season games, possessing 17 with two to play. They no longer can finish above .500 in the Big East, their limit being 9-9 and to do that they not only have to beat DePaul on Senior Night but go on the road and beat South Florida, the conference’s surprise entry that already has double-figure victories in conference play.
The alternative to the NCAA is not a pretty one called the NIT, which might as well stand for the National “I Don’t Want to Play Here” Tournament.
How can WVU rescue the season?
It begins with winning both of its regular-season games, which would give it the necessary 9-9 conference record to get into the NCAA Tournament.
Then there is a matter of earning a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament, something that most teams need at this stage of the season. The top eight teams in the conference do not play the first day in New York.
To accomplish that, they would need to win two while Seton Hall would have to lose its final two games and Connecticut lose two of its final three games, those teams being directly ahead of WVU in the standings and each possessing the tiebreaker against the Mountaineers.
The shame of it for WVU is that this was a season that did not have to come unraveled. A couple of breaks, either built on WVU’s good play or the failure of the ball to bounce the wrong way, could have changed things.
Down the stretch WVU blew sizeable leads against Marquette, Notre Dame and Louisville, losing those games by one, four and three points, respectively, while dropping a two-point decision at Syracuse. Considering they are the next-to-worst free throw shooting team in the Big East, you might figure some marksmanship from the free-throw line might have been enough alone to change their fortunes.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.