MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Welcome to the bubble, West Virginia.
Or maybe the bubble atop the bubble.
Though the exact proximity remains difficult to gauge, suffice to say the Mountaineers—with regard to their once farfetched NCAA tournament hopes—have at least played themselves into position to get into position.
If that sounds confusing, well, it should—because this team shapes up to be an intriguing test case for the selection committee. What matters more? The fact West Virginia accomplished virtually nothing in the nonconference schedule, or that it could finish with a winning record in America’s toughest conference?
After a 102-77 demolition of No. 11 Iowa State on Monday night, West Virginia’s RPI climbed six spots to No. 66, putting in on the peripheral of bubble.
Coach Bob Huggins pondered whether WVU’s resurgence in the Big 12 should override the nonleague losses to Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Missouri, Purdue (yuck) and Virginia Tech (double-yuck).
“I bet we could take a poll here and most people would say we wouldn’t lose those now,” Huggins said.
While there are no do-overs for the first-semester foibles, Huggins’ squad is quantifiably better now than it was then. Better to the point that it has beaten three teams who as of Tuesday sported RPIs of 27 (Kansas State), 21 (Oklahoma) and 13 (Iowa State). Better to the point that by splitting its final six Big 12 games, West Virginia would wind up 10-8, and likely in the upper half, of the nation’s top-RPI conference.
Of course three more regular-season wins are anything but a cinch, considering the closing stretch that faces the Mountaineers (15-10, 7-5):
Feb. 15: at Texas (18-5, 9-2) RPI: 26
Feb. 22: vs. Baylor (14-9, 2-8) RPI: 55
Feb. 26: at Iowa State (18-5, 6-5) RPI: 13
March 1: vs. TCU (9-13, 0-10) RPI: 196
March 5: at Oklahoma (18-6, 7-4) RPI: 21
March 8: vs. Kansas (18-6, 9-2) RPI: 1
And even though three wins would guarantee West Virginia a winning league record, that might not be tantamount to an NCAA invite. Each season brings its own benchmark for at-large selections.
In contrast to coaches who are reluctant to publicly focus on the RPI, Huggins has encouraged his players plot a mathematical road map to the tourney.
“I don’t lie to them,” he said. “There are people who say, ‘Well, aren’t you putting pressure on them?’ But if I was them, I’d want to know what you’ve got to do, what our RPI is, what the RPI of the people we’re playing is.
“I’d want to know what we need to do to get our RPI in a range where we’re talked about as an NCAA team.”
According to bracketology numbers cruncher Jerry Palm, the lowest-RPI teams to receive an at-large bid were No. 67 USC and No. 64 Marquette in 2011, No. 63 Stanford in 2007 and No. 63 N.C. State in 2005.
What’s the magic RPI number for West Virginia?
“Anything lower than 60 and I think we can get in,” guessed guard Eron Harris.
“We have to be below 50 or maybe 50ish,” surmised Gary Browne.
Which goes to show that life on the bubble is slippery and debatable, and the Mountaineers—based on where they stood a month ago—are mighty thankful just to be privy to the conversation.