MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In January, West Virginia might have needed a ladder to climb out of the hole it dug itself at the start of conference play. Over a month later, it seems to have not only found that ladder but ascended several rungs toward the NCAA Tournament field.
According to WVU coach Bob Huggins, his Mountaineers “realized what we need to do to win in this league.”
Still, the Mountaineers (15-9, 4-7 Big 12) have plenty of work to do until they solidify their spot in the postseason, and several of their toughest challenges lie ahead of them, continuing with a road matchup at No. 5 Texas (19-5, 8-3) on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 12 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
“I think as the old, whatever it was, proverb says, you dug yourself a hole and now you’ve got to climb out of it….I think that’s a big part of our competitiveness now, I think that’s a big part of why we’re playing so much harder than what we played before,” Huggins said. “We’re trying to get out of that hole, and we’ve made strides in getting out of the hole, and once you get close to getting out of the hole, you sure as heck don’t want to fall back in it.”
WVU has sat squarely on the bubble after its dismal start in the Big 12, wavering in and out of the field since the new year. On Thursday, however, the Mountaineers made their first appearance off the bubble, earning a projected No. 9 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology for ESPN.
West Virginia is now three victories away from its 18-win target number with seven games left in the season.
“Nothing’s ruled out. I’ve watched 12-seeds get to the Final Four. You see it happen, like, every other year,” said veteran forward Emmitt Matthews Jr. “I don’t think we’ll be that low of a seed, I think we’re going to keep the wheels turning and get up to hopefully like a 5/6-seed and play from there, but a national championship is everyone wants.”
The Longhorns are far from the bubble themselves, but they, too, have a lot at stake regarding their place in the field. They have fluctuated in and out of the AP’s top 10, moving from No. 12 to No. 2 at various points in the season. As of Thursday, Lunardi projects them to be a 2-seed, so a late run in the regular season could catapult the Longhorns to a No. 1 spot, a massive achievement given the turbulence they faced in the opening months of the campaign.
Saturday’s clash is crucial for each team’s goals. It will be recorded as a quadrant 1 win regardless of the victor, the most valuable result for any team looking to boost its resume.
It will be as difficult as it is crucial. Texas held off the Mountaineers in the first matchup in Morgantown, but it was far from an easy task. WVU actually held the lead at halftime, and despite a second half led by Texas, the Longhorns never led their hosts by more than eight points.
“We’re going to try our best to win all our games remaining in the regular season. In Kansas City [at the Big 12 Tournament], we know what that atmosphere is like, and you know, we’d obviously love to do something special there,” Matthews said. “That first weekend in April is what everyone wants to play for so obviously we’re going to take this one game at a time, we’re not going to look past any opponents.”
Tip-off between West Virginia and No. 5 Texas is set for 12 p.m. ET on ESPN2, but before it gets started, be sure to gear up for the game with a live edition of Mountaineer GameDay, which airs at 10 a.m. ET on affiliated Nexstar stations.