Florida vs. West Virginia, Game Thread: Gators, Mountaineers vie for valuable victory

What is West Virginia other than the western part of Virginia? Aside from Florida’s opponent in the fifth place playoff of the men’s version of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament this Sunday night, it’s probably one of two things.

The first is the good team being beaten by better ones. West Virginia – yes, still coached by the timeless Bob Huggins; No, not quite the “Press Virginia” team it has been in years past — it’s 5-1, with five double-digit wins against teams outside of KenPom’s top 100 and its only loss against an excellent Purdue team, the never lagging behind did the Mountaineers maintain a lead of four or more points from the moment the Boilermakers won the race, to 20 points to triple zero on the clock.

Given what Purdue also did to Gonzaga and Duke in Portland this week — beating them up and doing it even more extensively than in West Virginia — it’s probably not a heavy loss for the ‘Eers. And while none of its other victories were particularly notable, though it was one-sided, West Virginia’s profile suggests a likely NCAA tournament team if it’s primarily going about its business.

The other thing? A bubble team that plays bad enough at inopportune moments to make their NCAA tournament chances slimmer than they need to be.

Florida knows that feeling well, having slid the easy distance from the first pole to the second pole under Mike White at least a few times. West Virginia is currently #36 in KenPom; Florida finished at No. 36 within 10 spots five times under White and qualified for two NITs and two NCAA tournaments during those seasons, although it would have been selected for the 2020 NCAA tournament field.

And this year’s Gators, ranked No. 42 in the game at KenPom, could face a similar fate. Their loss to Xavier won’t affect their candidacy but they need Florida Atlantic to continue their impressive start so this isn’t a bad loss; Their win over Florida State is probably one of the least valuable in a power conference program, as the Seminoles sit at 1-6 and preciously little outside of Baba Miller is a phenomenon that suggests they’ll have good wins in this one year in the books.

FSU’s plight illustrates part of what makes games like today’s so important for both teams: There are only so many chances of winning against name brand opponents on schedules that don’t require beating a stellar roster or through the fights being partially devalued by an opponent. Add that this is a true neutral 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 consider when it comes to grading the Gators and Mountaineers March.

How do you rate yourself on the pitch? Colin Castleton is, as usual, the first player to be mentioned on the show and how he fares against a frontcourt he should be exploiting could be instructive. Great men Tre Mitchell (who traveled from UMass to West Virginia via Texas in threeseasons) and Jimmy Bell (a transfer from Saint Louis) will cede size and speed to Castleton, and for Bell and Mohamed Wague, the extraordinary climbers an efficient (18-for-22 out of the field!) Backup Center, which includes Castleton, would go a long way in helping West Virginia.

But then West Virginia may also have to worry about containing Trey Bonham, who has appeared on Florida’s starting lineup by providing points in bundles, and finding Will Richard, who has made exactly half of his 24 three-pointers this year. West Virginia has its own dangerous range finder in South Carolina, the Erik Stevenson, a troublesome, patchy shooter who makes his fourth Division I stops who got off to a hot start this fall, but Richard’s threes are a little more important for the Gators.

If Florida gets a decent Treys, whether from Richard or anyone else, they should have a good chance of walking away with a win in this game.

Unless? Well, it’s a long flight home from Portland, and it won’t be a particularly happy one.