The Times West Virginian

Bob Herzel

February 25, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN- WVU basketball fighting to make history, tourney

MORGANTOWN — In the history of the Big 12 conference, there has never been a team reach the NCAA Tournament with a sub-.500 conference record.

Can West Virginia be the first to break that trend?

Or, has the quality of the conference hurt not only the Mountaineers’ chances to make the NCAAs but also the potential seeds of other schools that do make the tournament?

First of all, let us agree on one thing and that is that the Big 12 is the strongest conference in college basketball today.

Don’t believe it?

You could just check the available rankings that show them there or you could listen to the league’s coaches, many of whom have coached in any number of major conferences across American.

RICK BARNES, TEXAS: “In terms of quality teams, there’s no doubt in my mind this is the best league I’ve been a part of.”

LON KRUEGER, OKLAHOMA: “Without question (it is the strongest conference). Every night you lineup it’s going to be tough. I know that and every coach knows that.”

TRAVIS FORD, OKLAHOMA STATE: “We have the best teams in America in our conference and we have the toughest schedule in American because we have to play each other twice.”

Take a look at WVU. They stand at 7-7 in the Big 12 and figure to get an 8th win against winless TCU, but the other three remaining games are at Iowa State, at Oklahoma and at home against Kansas.

On the surface that looks like 8-10, short of an upset.

Now West Virginia stands 6th in the conference stands, a game ahead of Baylor, which just beat them badly at home, and two games against Oklahoma State.

Does WVU go into the NCAA’s ahead of Baylor and OSU if it closes out 1-3 and doesn’t pull off a win over Iowa State, Oklahoma or Kansas?

What do you think? See, the question you have to ask yourself along with whether a sub-.500 Big 12 team might make the tournament field is how many Big 12 teams will the tournament committee put into the tournament?

“I do think our league can be a victim of our own success and be the victim of having so many good teams in the league because we are going to beat each other up. Usually, when parity is in a league there is an appearance of mediocrity,” said Kansas Coach Bill Self.

“Usually there are three teams at the top and everybody else is at the bottom and you think it is a great league from an appearance standpoint, but I think the committee will give our league every benefit of playing in such a competitive league and understanding when you play in a league this good and play 18 games, you are going to play 10 against top 50 teams.

“Certainly 4-6 or 3-7 against the top 50 teams is a good record as far as earning a large bid.”

“It’s a valid argument that could be discussed,” added Travis Ford of Oklahoma State, who is very much involved in the discussion considering his team was among the nation’s top until falling into a slump and then having the Marcus Smart incident magnify their fall.

“Considering this is the best league in America and everyone plays each other twice, you will have some records in league that are not true to what they look like because of the strength of the conference,” Ford continued.

“We fall into that category, no question. We’re still sitting around 20 in Palm’s rankings. That’s because of the whole of our season, not just the seven-game span where we weren’t very good.”

So how will the tournament selection committee come down?

Will it rely on the strength of the Big 12 to provide the measuring stick or will it simply look at records and penalize losses, even if they are against strong conference opponents?

“Historically, I don’t think playing in a tough league has hurt a team’s seedings,” said WVU’s Bob Huggins. “They rely heavily on RPIs and I think the RPIs in league are very good. I think, as in the past, you’ll be rewarded for playing the people you play. Being best in country, I think our teams will be rewarded.”

Huggins won’t bite when asked about bucking history should his team have to try to land a spot in the tournament with an 8-10 record.

“I can’t answer that. They do not just look at the last couple of weeks. In our case, we had some great opportunities that were non-conference and let them slip away because we were young at that point.

“The good and the bad about this league is you have an opportunity every game,” Huggins added. “We go to Iowa State, which is a top 20 team. We have Oklahoma and Kansas. There’s opportunities for signature wins.”

Or damning losses.

If the Big 12 gets seven teams into the tournament, WVU still has a life, especially if it can do some damage in the conference tournament.

If only six teams are chosen, it will simply be another year of March Sadness instead of Madness.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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