By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
West Virginia University’s men’s basketball team finds itself in really a strange situation, looking at its move from the Big East to the Big 12 as being the reason it will make the NCAA Tournament this year or the reason it will miss the NCAAs.
It’s sort of a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Here’s the situation. WVU is 17-13 in regular-season play, which is not good, but it is 9-9 in Big 12 play, which can be considered good as it heads into the conference tournament which begins Wednesday in Kansas City.
See, here’s the deal. The Big 12 is the best conference in America, so finishing at .500 would seem to qualify you for the NCAAs.
“How much weight do you put on this being the No. 1 RPI league in the country?” answered coach Bob Huggins, when asked how he views the situation his team is in. “How much do you put on we’re 9-9 and finished a game ahead of two people (Oklahoma State and Baylor) they are saying are going to get in?”
Oklahoma State and Baylor each won more than 20 games, though, and Huggins understands that 17 wins isn’t going to do it, not even if they played in the NBA.
That, of course, makes the Big 12 Tournament WVU’s entire season, and Huggins admits that.
“I’d feel a lot better if we would win a couple more,” he said. “I’d sleep a lot better Saturday night.”
Two wins would get the Mountaineers to the conference final, and no committee could possibly overlook that.
The Mountaineers probably bit off a lot more than they could chew, playing the toughest schedule Huggins has ever played, and tight losses to teams like Gonzaga and Wisconsin and Purdue and Missouri didn’t help matters, all of them being winnable games.
And then there was an inexcusable loss to Virginia Tech, a really dreadful team in which they blew a 17-point lead, that is an albatross hanging around their necks as they beg for inclusion in the NCAAs.
Again, though, it comes down to how important it is for the selection committee to understand the strength of the Big 12 this year.
Tubby Smith won a national champion at Kentucky and has coached in the SEC, the Big 10 and now the Big 12 at Texas Tech. He was asked to compare the conference to those he previously coached in.
“It’s the best, as far as talent,” he said on Monday’s Big 12 coaches’ conference call. “This league is by far the toughest in the country, and I think eight teams could conceivably get in.”
Eight teams … Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State and … West Virginia?
Kansas coach Bill Self sees it that way, too.
“You’ve got eight teams – when we saw what WVU did to us the other day, how in the world are they not considered to be in the tournament going 9-9 in our league?” Self said.
Can this league be that good to warrant eight teams?
Huggins says take a look at the all-conference selections. Not the first team. Honorable mention.
Isaiah Austin (Baylor), Wayne Selden Jr. (Kansas), Naadir Tharpe (Kansas), Thomas Gipson (Kansas State), Will Spradling (Kansas State), Ryan Spangler (Oklahoma), Le’Bryan Nash (Oklahoma State), Kyan Anderson (TCU), Javan Felix (Texas), Cameron Ridley (Texas), Isaiah Taylor (Texas), Eron Harris (West Virginia).
“Those guys would be all-conference in other leagues,” Huggins said, and he has a case.
What happened, though? What happened in this country that once had the ACC and the Big 10 as major basketball conferences and the Big 12, quite frankly, not very much interested in the sport.
One thing was realignment, which left the Big 12 as the only 10-team conference, not playing a divisional schedule, instead playing a true round-robin, home-and-home where every team plays every other team twice.
“I think it’s the best basketball conference in the country,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “From the time I got here 16 years ago I never thought divisional play was what it should be. We all felt cutting down to 10 teams would benefit basketball more than anything. It benefitted rivalries. You can feel them building, and a true round-robin gives you a true champion.”
Huggins noted that a smaller league seems to have better players, pointing back to the Big East before it became an 18-team giant.
“Think about it with Chris Mullen, Walter Berry, Patrick Ewing, Ronnie Seikaly and you could go on and on,” he said.
Now go to this year’s Big 12 first-team all-conference: Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Smart, Melvin Ejim, DeAndre Kane and WVU’s Juwan Staten.
It’s a pretty impressive group … Huggins is hoping good enough to make an impression on the selection committee when all is said and done.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.