MORGANTOWN — If West Virginia (20-9) misses the NCAA women’s basketball tournament despite winning 11 games in Big 12 play, a loss all the way back on Nov. 23 may prove to be the deciding factor that leaves the Mountaineers on the wrong side of the bubble.
An embarrassingly low non-conference strength of schedule is the biggest factor working against West Virginia’s at-large hopes. According to RPI guru Warren Nolan, WVU’s non-conference schedule ranks 328th in the country.
One team in particular places a heavy burden on the Mountaineers: Eastern Kentucky.
The Colonels (2-27) are one of the sorriest teams in the country with an overall RPI of 332. Both wins were against non-Division I opponents. And thanks to a scheduling quirk, they are also an anchor on West Virginia’s RPI by virtue of playing the Mountaineers twice.
For reasons unknown to the naked eye, EKU was invited to participate in the eight-team Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas. The inclusion is all the more puzzling considering that the only other non-Power 5 team in that tourney, UAB, is 20-5 this season with an RPI of 101. Eastern Kentucky hasn’t had a winning record since 2016.
On Nov. 23, West Virginia blew a 22-point lead in an eventual 84-81 loss to Iowa. A win over the Hawkeyes, who have the No. 9 RPI in the country, probably would have been enough to lift the Mountaineers from on the bubble to comfortably in the tournament field.
In addition to missing out on that valuable win, WVU was dealt a double whammy.
With a victory, West Virginia would have faced Florida State, which is 23rd in RPI. Instead, the Mountaineers were saddled with Eastern Kentucky. Three weeks later, the teams played again in an already-scheduled game at the Charleston Civic Center.
In effect, playing such a low-rated team twice negates the benefit of having two games against Baylor, which features the nation’s second-best RPI. Thus, West Virginia’s overall strength of schedule is 88th — among the worst marks for the 10 or so teams vying for the final four spots in the NCAA tournament.
Fortunately, a positive result in the first round of the Big 12 tournament may be all it takes for the Mountaineers to sew up a spot in the NCAA field.
West Virginia is the No. 4 seed in the Big 12 tourney, but 5-seed Kansas State boasts a much better RPI of 35. WVU goes into the tournament ranked 69th in RPI. The teams split in the regular season, with WVU blasting the Wildcats, 60-30, in Morgantown on Jan. 26 and K-State exacting its revenge with a 90-79 win in Manhattan, Kan. on Feb. 27.
A win over the Wildcats would improve West Virginia’s record to 4-8 against teams in the Top 50. It would also set up a rematch against Baylor. A third game against the Bears should boost West Virginia’s RPI and strength of schedule regardless of the outcome.
“I think our team realizes we need to win this game,” said WVU coach Mike Carey. “My understanding is we need to win this game [to get in].”
Carey doesn’t believe that should be the case, but it’s the reality he and the Mountaineers must deal with.
“You would not think, being in the No. 3 RPI league in the country, that if you win 11 games and finish fourth that you’d need to win another in the tournament to get in,” Carey said. “That’s something we’ll have to look at in the future, because in the Big 12 that should not happen.”