By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
When West Virginia University takes the court against No. 19 Texas at 8 p.m. today in Austin, it is almost like a “free game” in its drive toward a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The game is being televised only on the Longhorn Network, making no local viewing available.
When ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi last laid out his projection for this year’s NCAAs, he listed WVU as the last team in the field, down to travel to Dayton, Ohio, to play Georgetown in an opening-round play-in game.
So how does that have anything to do with tonight’s Texas game?
Well, WVU coach Bob Huggins has been saying all year that the NCAA field will ultimately be decided by how teams do against Top 50 RPI teams.
Texas is No. 22.
The Mountaineers are 3-8 against Top 50 teams, 4-8 against Top 100.
Should they lose to Texas, it will hurt them very little with five games plus the Big 12 Tournament remaining, many of them against highly-ranked RPI teams.
But should they win, and the way they are playing, having won two of their last three against Top 20 teams and four of their last five games, they may well win, it could push them over the top and virtually secure them one of what appears to be seven Big 12 spots in the tournament barring a complete disaster down the stretch.
“This is a great chance to move up in the standings, a great chance to move up in the RPI,” Huggins said. “I think there have only been five teams who were under 50 in the RPI ever who haven’t made the tournament. We’re moving in that direction.”
West Virginia is currently 66th in the RPI and still has games left with No. 1 Kansas, No. 11 Iowa State (who they just beat) and No. 29 Oklahoma, in addition to Texas.
That WVU has been able to overcome early shakiness that came from inexperience to find an identity and make a run at the tournament has been a sign of something more than just ability. This, according to Huggins, was a “team” from the beginning, even before it was ready to be a winning “team.”
“We made some mistakes out of lack of knowledge that cost us, but in terms of camaraderie, we had that from the beginning,” he said.
The camaraderie has allowed the team play through the bad times, to support each other when things went bad … and there have been hard times.
Take when WVU lost at Kansas and Terry Henderson had a hard time, following it up by going around the locker room and apologizing to his teammates and telling them, “This one is on me.”
Being able to do that and being able to accept it brings a team closer together, players having each other’s backs, adding strength to the entire team concept.
Huggins saw a resurgence coming all season long. While smart enough to see that, he just didn’t know when the rest of the team would catch up with Juwan Staten and Eron Harris and offer the missing parts.
It came when they beat Baylor at home five games back.
“I think a long time ago was the start of something,” Harris said following the Iowa State win. “When we started this surge against Baylor, that was the start of something. Even though we lost to Kansas, that was still a good fight, and like I said before, we get Kansas again at home. But this started back when we were at Baylor. Things started clicking then, and we’re getting better and better every time.”
Now you have Henderson back hot, Remi Dibo coming off his first 20-point performance, freshman Nathan Adrian cutting back on his mistake and adding to his defense and hustle plays, resulting in a team that seems to be peaking at just the right moment.
Texas is a tough chore, having beaten WVU, 80-69, in Morgantown on Jan. 13 and knowing that if they win this home game the Longhorns will have secured a 20-victory season.
The key to the Texas offense is found in sophomore guard Javan Felix, who scored 19 in the first game against WVU with 8-of-13 shooting from the floor and is coming into the game off a 27-point outburst against Oklahoma State with a career-high six 3-point goals in eight tries.
“He’s a great shooter, scores off the bounce and can play off the ball,” said Huggins.
Jonathan Holmes is also a huge scoring threat for Texas and the Longhorns’ top rebounder, having snared 12 against WVU, but he missed the last game and played only nine minutes in the previous game with injury.
Huggins, however, doesn’t figure he’ll miss this game.
“I’ve said this many times; we heal everyone,” Huggins said. “We are the Ernest Angley of basketball. They see West Virginia, and they are ready to play.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.