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WVU carves NCAA tournament notch

By Staff | Mar 2, 2018

Beating No. 1-ranked Virginia on the Cavaliers’ home court. Beating Oklahoma, TCU, Baylor and Kansas State, when all those teams were ranked in the Top 25.

Those are West Virginia’s shiniest credentials on a season that had 21 wins going into last Monday’s home game against Texas Tech.

The resume has enough luster. The NCAA tournament committee will be selecting the Mountaineers on March 11 to play in another 68-team field.

What about a seed where the Mountaineers can move past the first or second round? Could West Virginia find a smoother-than-usual three-game path to the championship in the Big 12 tournament?

It’s never happened before.

In its five-year tour of the Big 12 Conference, the Mountaineers have never left the Great Midwest with a tournament championship. They lost in the 2017 title game to Iowa State. They lost in the 2016 title game to Kansas. And in the previous three years, they lost in quick first-round exits.

Consistent Kansas has just clinched its 14th straight regular season conference title. With the league tournament again held in Kansas City, the Jayhawks will have a ready-made group of fans pleading for them to wipe out the pretenders from Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, West Virginia and the archrival Kansas State Wildcats.

How many rabid fans will be on hand screaming their lungs out for the far-distant West Virginia Mountaineers? Some. But not enough to blast the glass out of the windows that enclose the Sprint Center, which holds just over 18,000 spectators.

Noise won’t win the games in this tournament. But being comfortable in front of a home-state crowd while the opponent comes from as far as 1,000 miles away doesn’t hurt your chances.

The tournament dates are March 7 through March 10. The championship game is set for 5 p.m. Central Time on March 10.

WVU senior point guard Jevon Carter was on last year’s all-tournament team, along with then-senior Tarik Phillips.

Is West Virginia consistent enough to wade through three pressurized games and take the tournament?

Carter has to be playing like the event’s MVP. Daxter Miles Jr. needs to be at his disruptive best. Sagaba Konate will be mostly foul-free if West Virginia does anything. Esa Ahmad needs to score well. And Coach Bob Huggins has to have production of some kind from some player among lesser lights James “Beetle” Bolden, Teddy Allen, Wes Harris or Lamont West.

If either Maciej Bender or Logan Routt are forced onto the floor, an early exit is coming.

Teams aren’t likely to wilt in the face of the WVU pressure defense. But here’s the kicker: West Virginia makes over 77 percent of its free throws. And if you discard the foul shots attempted by Bender, Routt and Chase Harler, the team makes over 80 percent of its foul shots. Foul shots win tournament games more often than does pressure defense.

Konate isn’t an all-America player. But he’s so much more effective than replacements Bender and Routt, it’s akin to Wilt Chamberlain playing against Darrall Imhoff, who once ceded 100 points to the Philadelphia center in a 1962 NBA game.

West Virginia’s going to the wide-open NCAA tournament. Will it go as a team without an offensive identity, or one with just enough hustle, energy and free throws to cause some anxious minutes and fluttery stomachs in enemy camps?