West Virginia is headed to the NCAA Tournament 366 days after the 2020 edition of the championship was canceled.
It’s been a long road to get to this point — even after the uncertainty ahead of this season, there have been postponements, schedule changes, bubbles and cancellations along the way. Finally, though, Bob Huggins’s team gets a shot at the Big Dance after a now two-year hiatus — and the coach is pleased with the seeding.
“I think these guys will be ready to go,” Huggins said. “I think they’ll be chomping at the bit to be able to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
The 3-seed Mountaineers will face 14-seed Morehead State in the Midwest region after much speculation they would occupy a four spot, and landed the No. 10 overall seed. WVU likely got the benefit of a strong schedule (the 13th-toughest in the nation), while all nine of the teams they lost to are in the tournament. They also snagged key wins against five ranked opponents.
The Mountaineers also competed in several close games throughout the season, including two that went beyond regulation. Eighteen of their 27 games this year were decided by single digits, and of those, WVU won 10. That experience could prove crucial for West Virginia, as many of those contests were against conference opponents, six of which are competing in Indianapolis.
“I think it’s gotta help,” Huggins said. “I think it would maybe help more if we won more of the close ones, but I think it’s a big help for us.”
This year’s bracket features a lot of familiar potential opponents. Of the seven Big 12 teams in this year’s dance, Oklahoma State is the lone one to join WVU in the Midwest region as the 4-seed. If WVU can pull off a win against the Eagles in the Round of 64, they will face either San Diego State or Syracuse — two teams that are relatively familiar for the Mountaineers. WVU last faced the Aztecs in 2015, while the history between the Mountaineers and the Orange goes back decades as former Big East rivals.
Of course, no run in the NCAA Tournament is guaranteed. In between Sweet Sixteen and Final Four runs, bad memories of first-round exits at the hands of Stephen F. Austin and the like are sandwiched. Huggins is quick to remember, though, that this rule applies to everyone, and the 2018 tournament showed that nobody — not even the No. 1 overall seed — is safe.
“Everybody in there can beat you, as has been seen in recent years,” he said. “Everybody can lose. Including Baylor and Gonzaga, who everybody acts like can’t be beat, I certainly don’t think that’s the case.”
Huggins has good reason to think like that. WVU played both of those teams and lost by just five points to each of them — and it even took the Bears an overtime period to finally pull it off.
Right now, however, the focus is on Morehead State. The coach is not yet familiar with his upcoming opponent — he even mixed the Eagles up with 2018 first round opponent Murray State during his reactionary press conference — but says he plans on watching four or five of their games the moment he arrives home from the practice facility.
In the meantime, though, his gameplan for the tournament is simple: make free throws and minimize miscues.
“Score more than they do, instead of less,” he said. “That keeps everybody happy.”