What is West Virginia, other than not the western part of Virginia? Well, apart from Florida’s opponent in the fifth-place game of the men’s version of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament on this Sunday night, it’s probably one of two things.
The first is the good team that gets smacked by better ones. West Virginia — yes, still coached by the ageless Bob Huggins; no, not quite the “Press Virginia” team it has been in years past — is 5-1, with its five wins coming by double digits against teams outside the KenPom top 100 and its lone loss coming to an excellent Purdue team that never trailed the Mountaineers and kept a lead of four or more points from the moment the Boilermakers won the race to 20 points until triple zeroes on the clock.
Given what Purdue has also done to Gonzaga and Duke this week in Portland — namely, thrashed them, and even more comprehensively than it did West Virginia — that is probably not a bad loss for the ‘Eers. And while none of its other wins were particularly eye-popping despite being lopsided, the West Virginia profile suggests a likely NCAA Tournament team if it mostly handles its business.
The other thing? A bubble team that plays poorly enough at inopportune moments to make its chances of making the NCAA Tournament slimmer than they needed to be.
Florida knows that feeling well, having slid the slight distance from the first perch to the second at least a couple of times under Mike White. West Virginia is currently No. 36 in KenPom; Florida finished within 10 spots of No. 36 five times under White, qualifying for two NITs and two NCAA Tournaments in those seasons, though it would have been selected for the 2020 NCAA Tournament field.
And this year’s Gators, who are No. 42 in KenPom entering this game, might be destined for a similar fate. Their loss to Xavier will not be a drag on their candidacy, but they need Florida Atlantic to continue its impressive start for that not to be a bad loss; their win over Florida State, meanwhile, is probably destined to be one of the least valuable over a power-conference program, with the Seminoles sitting at 1-6 and precious little outside of Baba Miller being a phenomenon to suggest they will put good wins on the books this year.
FSU’s plight helps illustrate part of what makes games like tonight’s so important for both teams: There are only so many shots at wins against name-brand opponents on schedules that won’t either require beating an excellent squad or come partially devalued by a foe’s struggles. Throw in that this is a bona fide neutral-site affair, with two East Coast teams playing in the Pacific Northwest, and you have the makings of a contest that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee is likely to scrutinize when sizing up the Gators and Mountaineers come March.
As for how they size up on the court? Colin Castleton is, as usual, the first player who will be mentioned by the broadcast, and how he fares against a frontcourt that he should be able to exploit could be telling. Big men Tre Mitchell (who has traveled from UMass to Texas to West Virginia in three seasons) and Jimmy Bell (a Saint Louis transfer) will give up size and speed to Castleton, respectively, and for Bell and Mohamed Wague, the Mountaineers’ extraordinarily efficient (18-for-22 from the field!) backup center, containing Castleton would go a long way to helping West Virginia.
But then West Virginia might also need to worry about containing Trey Bonham, who has surged into Florida’s starting lineup by providing points in bunches, and finding Will Richard, who has made exactly half of his 24 threes attempted on the year. West Virginia has its own dangerous range-finder in South Carolina transfer Erik Stevenson, a pesky, streaky shooter making his fourth Division I stop who is off to a hot start this fall, but Richard’s threes are a bit more important for the Gators.
If Florida gets a respectable of treys, whether from Richard or someone else, it should have a good chance of coming away with a win in this one.
If not? Well, it’s a long flight home from Portland, and it won’t be a particularly happy one.