West Virginia has one of the nation's top players in Kevin Jones, a fiery and high-profile coach in Bob Huggins, and a rowdy fan base that makes things rough on any opponent. It’s all perfect for television -- and the NCAA tournament.
But at some point the Mountaineers need to win some games.
West Virginia enters tonight’s tilt at Notre Dame having lost five of its past seven contests. At 17-10 overall and 7-7 in the Big East, Huggins’ squad is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament altogether if it doesn’t close the regular season in a strong fashion.
The Mountaineers host Marquette on Friday before taking on DePaul and South Florida next week. At the moment, though, nothing is more important than beating the Fighting Irish.
It certainly won’t be easy. Notre Dame has won eight straight league games -- the second-longest streak in the country by a BCS school -- and defeated West Virginia 55-51 in Morgantown on Feb. 8.
Playing both man-to-man and zone defense, Notre Dame forced the Mountaineers to shoot just 38 percent from the field. One of the biggest problems for West Virginia was a lack of productivity from point guard Truck Bryant. A senior, Bryant averages 16.7 points. But against Notre Dame he went scoreless in 40 minutes.
According to the folks at ESPN Stats & Information, Bryant has averaged 19.8 points and shot 42.2 percent in West Virginia’s 17 wins. But he’s averaging just 11.5 points and is shooting 24.8 percent in its 10 losses.
He and Jones will need to be at their best for West Virginia to have any hope of upsetting Notre Dame tonight at the Joyce Center.
Prediction: Notre Dame, 58-55
Other games to watch:
South Florida at Syracuse: One year after finishing 3-15, the Bulls are the biggest surprise in the Big East with a 10-4 record. South Florida, though, hasn’t been competitive with the conference’s upper-echelon teams, losing to Georgetown by 30 points and to Marquette by 20. And neither of those squads is as good as the Syracuse unit it will face in the Carrier Dome.
Prediction: Syracuse, 72-54
Temple at LaSalle: The Owls probably deserve more attention than they’ve been receiving. Fran Dunphy’s squad has won 10 straight games and defeated Duke and Wichita State in nonconference play. A victory tonight would give Temple (10-2) a one-game lead over Saint Louis (10-3) in the Atlantic 10 standings. Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt combine to average 35.2 points. LaSalle had lost three straight games before winning at Massachusetts on Saturday.
Prediction: Temple, 75-69
Wichita State at Illinois State: Wichita State is one of the hottest teams in the country. The Shockers have won their last three games (against Creighton, Missouri State and Davidson) by an average of 17.7 points. They can clinch the Missouri Valley Conference title outright for the first time since 2006 by defeating Illinois State tonight. Wichita State struggled to put the Redbirds away in a 65-62 home win back on Jan. 10. Wichita State has dropped just one game since, while Illinois State has lost six. The Redbirds are 8-8 in league play. Wichita State is 14-2.
Prediction: Wichita State, 73-64
Rutgers at Marquette: Marquette won 10 of its last 11 games and is tied with Notre Dame for second place in the Big East standings. Senior guard Darius Johnson-Odom is the main reason for Marquette’s success. He’s averaging 18.6 points (23.3 points in his past three games). Rutgers has made huge strides under second-year coach Mike Rice. But the Scarlet Knights have tapered off down the stretch and lost seven of their past eight.
Prediction: Marquette, 77-58
Michigan State at Minnesota: A bubble team as recently as a week ago, Minnesota’s NCAA tournament hopes are shot. The Gophers are just 5-9 in Big Ten play, and tonight’s game will be the first of three straight matchups against Top 25 opponents. A victory would give Michigan State (11-3) a one-game lead over Ohio State and Michigan (both 11-4) in the Big Ten standings. Spartans forward Draymond Green averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds in his past two games.
Prediction: Michigan State, 68-57
Kansas at Texas A&M: The defensive-minded Aggies actually led Kansas at halftime before falling 64-54 in Lawrence on Jan. 23. Aggies forward Khris Middleton (knee) and point guard Dash Harris (foot) are both expected to play tonight against the Jayhawks, who will try to avoid looking ahead to Saturday’s highly anticipated game against archrival Missouri.
Prediction: Kansas, 69-56
Wyoming at San Diego State: What’s happened to San Diego State? Ten days ago, the Aztecs were atop the Mountain West standings and staring at a high NCAA tournament seed. Now they’re toting three straight losses and, perhaps, some shaky confidence. A win against Wyoming is imperative for San Diego State to have any hope of catching New Mexico in the regular-season conference race. Wyoming has lost three straight since upsetting UNLV on Feb. 4. The Cowboys are averaging just 45.7 points in their past three games.
Prediction: San Diego State, 59-47
UC Santa Barbara at Long Beach State: Long Beach State is four wins away from sweeping through the Big West Conference with an unblemished record. One of the 49ers' biggest remaining games is tonight against UCSB, which lost by 23 points when the teams met Jan. 21. UCSB has won six of its seven games since then and is tied with Cal State-Fullerton for second place in the league standings.
Prediction: Long Beach State 76-56