And the most unlikely place for the West Virginia basketball season to be saved was right where an NCAA tournament bid was resting on Saturday.
The foul line. Fifteen feet away from the basket. The bane of so many lost games. Free throws . . . with so many games where Bob Huggins’ teams shot 55 percent, or 49 percent, or individual players went 0-for-5, or 1-for-7, 3-for-9.
With an 18-12 overall record and a 8-9 conference record, West Virginia had only South Florida left to find some light to show an NCAA tournament selection committee that this Mountaineer team belonged in the expanded field of 68 teams.
No outsiders know what any year’s NCAA tournament selection committee will use as its guides or standards when it snatches at-large teams off the precipice and into the warmth of the tournament field. If it wants assurance it will be selected to the field, no team can leave its postseason fate in the hands of a committee seemingly more fickle than all the Kardashians thrown on to the set of a reality show being hosted by Joan Rivers and Dick Vitale.
South Florida was coming off road wins at Louisville and Pittsburgh. Its postseason future had not been assured. Even though it had a 12-5 Big East record, there were 11 losses in its portfolio.
Nothing had been guaranteed for the Bulls. Their plight was as much a matter conjecture as was West Virginia’s. Both teams had plenty to play for; “hustle” and “uncertainty” should have been the first and last names of both teams.
West Virginia comes out and shoots 28.8 percent (15-for-52) from the floor with Truck Bryant going 2-for-11, Deniz Kilicli 2-for-9, Jabarie Hinds 0-for-4, and Kevin Jones 6-for-18. Which team literally survived? It was stone-cold-from-the-field West Virginia that moved all the way to eighth place in the final regular season standings. Moved there with a 9-9 conference record. And a 19-12 overall record that it can carry to the first round of the Big East tournament, where it plays for the first time on Wednesday at noon time.
Fifteen field goals? And West Virginia wins? On the road? It was free throw shooting that carried the day. Bryant was 12-for-12. Jones was 4-for-4. Two freshmen went a combined 1-for-4, so the team statistic is a final 18-for-21 (85.7 percent) for the game.
The smallish eight turnovers West Virginia had also was an important part of its winnning.
Now comes the tournament.
The first four teams — Syracuse, Marquette, Notre Dame, and Cincinnati — all receive what is being called a “double-bye” and don’t play until Thursday’s quarterfinals.
The next four teams — Georgetown, South Florida, Louisville, and West Virginia — receive a bye into Wednesday’s second round.
The last eight teams had to begin their tournaments on Tuesday with Connecticut playing DePaul, Pittsburgh facing St. John’s, Seton Hall going against Providence, and Villanova meeting Rutgers.
Those last eight teams must win five straight games to be crowned the tournament champion. That’s the trip Connecticut took to the national championship last season. The Huskies won five straight games in the Big East tournament and then six straight games in the NCAA tournament. It took 11 wins for the Huskies to wade through both tournaments combined.
Does West Virginia have an NCAA tournament bid in its grasp?
The negatives are there even for Richard “Digger” Phelps, Vitale, and Dan Dakich — the old Mountaineer coach for a week back when Gale Catlett was leaving — to see. West Virginia has four losses to some of those last eight teams in the Big East tournament. Seton Hall, St. John’s, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh all defeated the Mountaineers.
Home games were lost to Pittsburgh, Louisville, Marquette, and Notre Dame.
The quixotic committee will not like the loss at home to the Kent State Golden Flashes.
In West Virginia’s considerable favor are wins in non-conference games against Miami, Kansas State, and Missouri State. The non-conference losses to Baylor and Mississippi State will not hurt because those are Top 50 teams.
West Virginia fortified its arguments with its 9-9 Big East record and its powerful “strength of schedule” rating. Only one team with a losing Big East record in the history of the league has ever been given an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
There have been a number of teams with break-even league marks given NCAA bids.
West Virginia’s last four games of the regular season did not harm its overall strength of schedule because three of those teams were Notre Dame, Marquette, and South Florida.
Teams without 20 wins are not scorned. Michigan State has been invited with 19 and 18 wins. Georgia once came to the tournament field with a 17-14 record.
Teams with 20 wins don’t get any more love from the committee than Digger Phelps gets from Bobby Knight. Twenty wins guarantees nothing. There will be at least 15 teams with 20 or more wins that are left out of the NCAA tournament field.
West Virginia’s strength of schedule is nearly flawless. The only thin-resume teams on that schedule were Alcorn State, Morehead State, and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
The positives easily outweigh the negatives.
But no team should ever leave its fate in any NCAA tournament selection committee. To do so is like trusting Dominique Rutledge to make two free throws in the fading seconds of a crucial game in March. In other words, don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.
Last year, there were 11 teams selected from the Big East. With Pittsburgh, Villanova, St. John’s, and Connecticut all have either already fallen into a bottomless pit or hanging on by their fingernails as a bullet train whizzes past, there will not be 11 teams taken by the NCAA tournament this time.
Seton Hall and South Florida could receive bids after missing out in 2011.
There is no magic number of teams taken from any single conference. If 12 are deserving from one league, 12 will go. If none other than the champion is deserving, only the champion will go.
The Mountaineers crested their chances by making free throws — the most unlikely place for them to show the committee another win over a Top 50 team . . . and do it on the road.