The Times West Virginian

March 5, 2014

Road to NCAA begins tonight for Mountaineers

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — While they would choose not to believe that it is necessary, it appears the only route West Virginia University has left to the NCAA Tournament – save a miracle run in the Big 12 Tournament to the tournament championship – is to run the table through its final two regular-season games.

And to climb that mountain they would be better served being coached by Sir Edmund Hillary than Bob Huggins.

Hillary, of course, was the first to climb Mount Everest, which seems like little more than the Eighth Street hill in Morgantown compared to Huggins’ task, which is simply to defeat the second- and first-place teams in the conference.

It begins tonight when they travel to Oklahoma to play a game that is almost as meaningful to the Sooners as it is to WVU, Oklahoma being tied with Iowa State and Texas for second place in the conference at 10-6, throwing seeding for the conference tournament into complete confusion.

Then, should they pull off the upset, WVU needs to come home for a game against Kansas, which has already clinched the regular-season title with a 13-3 record.

Kansas might actually be far less a challenge than Oklahoma, the game having little meaning to the Jayhawks, also coming on the Mountaineers’ home court at the Coliseum and WVU will be facing a Kansas team that figures to be without star 7-footer Joel Embiid.

Embiid is suffering from back problems for the second time this season and coach Bill Self said Monday he plays to rest him the final two games of the regular season.

“We’ve spoken to experts with this particular injury and have been told the same thing we were told before — rest is the best remedy,” Self said.

“It should not be an injury that keeps him out for the rest of the season,” Self continued. “It’s a similar thing as before, lower back strain basically. … Last time he was off five days, and that worked very nicely for him and he was able to come back and be 100 percent.”

Projected as potentially the first pick in the June NBA draft, Embiid scored 11 points with 12 rebounds and three blocks when Kansas beat WVU, 83-69, in Lawrence, Kansas.

But first there is that matter of Oklahoma, a team which WVU defeated, 91-86, in an overtime thriller in the Coliseum a month ago.

Eron Harris keyed the way to that victory with 28 points while Juwan Staten contributed 20 with six assists, and WVU will need more of the same on the road if an upset is to be pulled off.

If WVU wins that game it can finish the regular season with no worse than a 9-9 Big 12 record, possibly 10-8 if they were to beat Kansas, and Huggins believes 9-9 gives the Mountaineers a leg up on the NCAA Tournament.

“I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that if we finish 9-9 that we can’t get into the NCAA Tournament,” Huggins said prior to beating TCU. “If we do that, we’re going to finish ahead of a couple of teams that are pretty good, in the best league in the country.”

If WVU could finish at 9-9 it could be ahead of or tied with Oklahoma State and Baylor. The Cowboys must win at Iowa State to get to 9-9 and Baylor must beat Iowa State at home and win at Kansas State to finish at 9-9.

Staten, the Mountaineer point guard who has risen to the point of being considered for Big 12 Player of the Year honors, believes if the Mountaineers sweep the closing two games they will have clinched a spot in the tournament.

“Definitely,” he said. “You are playing in the toughest conference in college basketball. Two more wins gets us over .500.”

Realistically, winning two games in the regular season is a longshot.

But what if WVU can win one of the two and then take at least one, maybe two in the Big 12 Tournament?

How could they pull that off?

“It comes down to us,” said Huggins. “We have to make some shots because we don’t score up close. When we make shots we’ve been very competitive.”

Terry Henderson’s situation remains uncertain. The sophomore swingman has missed the last three games with illness and, while said to be improving, there has been no date for a return set.

Henderson scored 17 points in the first meeting with the Sooners.

Oklahoma offers great balance as it readies itself for the WVU invasion. Coming off a victory over arch-rival Texas, all five Sooner starters average in double figures, led by Buddy Heild with 16.7 points a game.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.