Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

College Sports

March 15, 2011

WVU's plans are in place for tournament

BLUEFIELD — The last time West Virginia and Kentucky met in the NCAA Tournament, it was for a berth in the Final Four.

West Virginia won that game last season, defeating the Wildcats 73-66 in regional finals, advancing to the national semifinals for the first time since 1959.

If they meet this time, it would come in the NCAA second round on Saturday.

“It would be a fun experience,” West Virginia senior John Flowers said. “I am pretty sure they want their payback.”

Both teams have business ahead, but at least one coach appears to be thinking ahead, as least according to West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins, who heard from Kentucky’s John Calipari soon after the pairings were announced on Sunday.

“I just got done talking to (John Calipari). He texted me at 6:01 and said ‘You know we are going to be playing each other again.’” Huggins said. “I didn’t think that there was any chance.

“At this point, I think that they are seven in the RPI and we are 20th and we probably should have played a little later (in the tournament bracket).”

First, West Virginia (20-11) has to defeat either Clemson or Alabama-Birmingham on Thursday, while the Wildcats must dispose of Princeton.

“It is good to be in the tournament again,” Flowers said. “It is a great experience. I was told that we could be a five or a six seed so I am satisfied with it.”

West Virginia will play one of those schools on Thursday in Tampa, Fla., at 12:15 p.m. The second round would be played on Saturday afternoon.  

“Tampa is a great place with great weather, but it is time for business,” West Virginia junior guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant said. “We are going down there to take care of business with one thing on our minds and that is to win games.”

The Mountaineers must wait until Tuesday’s “play-in game” is completed before knowing whether to prepare for the ACC’s Tigers (21-11) or the Blazers (22-8), one of the more surprising selections for this event.

In past years, the “play-in” format has involved schools from the lower-level leagues vying for the 16th seed in a regional, but there are four such games this season to allow for the expanded 68-team field.

“These play-in games have always been for the 16th-seed,” Huggins said. “I don’t know whether it was expanding the field a little bit or upsets in conference tournaments, but the so-called play-in game, the seed has risen dramatically.

“Now, instead of playing someone from a mid-major conference, you are playing people from BCS conferences, which is fine. You have to play everyone to win anyway.”

Still, it does provide less time to prepare for schools like West Virginia, Georgetown, Ohio State and Pittsburgh, all of whom won’t know until Tuesday or Wednesday who they will play. Both the Mountaineers and Hoyas will face teams that are much better than your typical 16th seeds.

“To me, I don’t think that there are any pros or cons,” Bryant said. “We all have to play against each other. We all have to compete. We have to bring our game.”

Huggins would like to see a change in the current format, allowing the teams like West Virginia an extra day to prepare for their opponent.

“It does take a day of preparation away. We are not going to know who we play until the game is over with,” Huggins said. “If you are going to play someone like that, you should play on Friday. It would be better for them and for the teams that are trying to prepare.”

Neither team has played West Virginia often in the past. Clemson is 1-3 against the Mountaineers, having not played them since 207, while UAB is 2-1, but the schools haven’t met since 1992.

Clemson finished fourth in the ACC, losing a significant lead to North Carolina in the ACC semifinals, while the Blazers captured the regular season crown out of Conference USA, but were eliminated in the tourney quarterfinals by East Carolina.

“We have to prepare for two different teams. We have done it before.” Jones said. “They are two pretty good teams and you can’t take anyone for granted. We just have to be prepared on our end and the rest will fall into place.”

Huggins already has a plan in place to begin preparations as soon as those clubs have finished their Tuesday night game.

“It is all film. We will have one assistant take one team, another take the other team and another assistant take who we would play in the second round,” Huggins said.

West Virginia entered last year’s tournament having won the school’s first Big East tournament title. They didn’t win game in the event last week, falling to Marquette in the second round. They did finish in a tie for sixth in the regular season in a league that sent 11 of its 16 teams to the NCAAs.

“We survived the Big East, finished sixth in the conference and we got a No. 5 seed,” West Virginia senior guard Joe Mazzulla said. “We survived the storm and have grown from it.”

On a team led by seniors Flowers, Mazzulla, leading scorer Casey Mitchell and Cam Thoroughman, Huggins thinks the Mountaineers will respond to not having played for more than a week.

“I think when you have more seniors and the finality sets in they are more focused,” Huggins said. “We are fortunate to have a bunch of seniors that this is their fourth NCAA tournament. They know what to expect.

“You try to be as prepared as you possibly can so you don’t get surprised.”

The thoughts of playing either Clemson or UAB less than two days after their play-in game could be an advantage for the fifth-seeded Mountaineers.

“After watching UConn go through five games in five days, I think that whole, ‘’You get tired after a couple games in a row’ thing is hard to look at it,” Thoroughman said. “It just shows that when you get momentum and get on a roll that good things are going to happen and those tired legs are really not what everyone thought they were.”

Or, maybe not. Flowers has a different outlook.

“We are going to just go into practice, go hard and work on our defense,” Flowers said. “Whoever we play could get some momentum coming in off of a win.”

It has been a season of adversity at times for the Mountaineers, but after a 8-4 start to the season, West Virginia has won three of its last four and five of eight heading into the NCAA Tournament.

“We have more experience and we play harder and together,” Mazzulla said. “I think we have a sense of identity. We know what we have to do, it is just a matter of executing it and being consistent.”

No one wants to play and advance more than Bryant, who fractured his right foot in the NCAAs last season and missed the last three games, including the regional finals and Final Four appearance.

“I am very excited. I am just looking forward to playing,” Bryant said. “The tournament is when you make your name and the team gets on the map.

“You just go in with one goal and that is to win basketball games.”

The Big East Tournament ended in sadness for the Mountaineers. They’re hoping that will be their final defeat of the season.

“The team’s spirit has been up and no one is holding their head down,” Jones said. “Everyone knows that this is a new season for us. We are starting 0-0 and hopefully we finish 6-0.”

—Contact Brian Woodson


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