In the program's second season under head coach Bobby Hurley, the Bulls won the MAC and punched their ticket to the tournament to get their first taste of March Madness. But even though Buffalo has never been to the NCAA tournament before, West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins believes that the former Duke point guard will have his Bulls team ready to go in Columbus.
"We've only got one guy on our roster who has been to the NCAA tournament, so I don't feel real sorry for (Hurley)," Huggins said Monday during the Big 12's postseason coaches teleconference. "I'm sure we all draw from our playing experiences, and I think particularly from the coaches we played for. So I'm sure Bobby has a wealth of knowledge and know-how to draw from."
Huggins came away impressed by what he has seen from Buffalo, which is battle-tested this season with tough road contests against both Kentucky and Wisconsin. The Bulls have won nine of their last 12 games and have started to peak at the right time.
"They're really good," Huggins said. "Bobby has done a great job coaching them, I think they play the way he did. They compete really hard, they rebound it very well and I think they take really good care of the ball."
The Bulls will be led by MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss. The junior big man stands in at 6-foot-7, 240 pounds and averaged nearly 18 points and seven boards per game for Buffalo this season.
He has scored in double figures in all but four of the Bulls' 32 games this season and has 15 double-doubles this season.
"He's the best player in the MAC, and I have great respect for the MAC having coached at Akron and growing up in Ohio," Huggins said. "He's a good player, he's a very physical player and a terrific rebounder. He got 14 rebounds against Wisconsin and there aren't many players in the country, at any level, who will go into Madison and get 14 rebounds against that front line."
While it's the Bulls' first trip to the NCAA tournament, it will also be Hurley's first experience in the postseason as well since becoming a college basketball head coach.
Meanwhile, it will be Huggins' 21st trip to the Big Dance as a head coach, and the veteran coach has been 12-0 in the first round when his teams are a No. 5 seed or better. But Huggins doesn't see coaching experience as a big factor in which team will be more successful than others in a matchup - especially early in the tournament when it's hard to pick a winner in some of the number of close games.
"I don't think (it matters) very much. My first experience in the tournament, we played Michigan when they were the No. 1-ranked team in the country and we lost by four and led at halftime. My second time in the tournament we went to the Final Four and the third time we went to the Elite Eight," Huggins said.
"If you can coach, you can coach, and Bobby has shown that he can coach."
As is usually the case in the NCAA tournament where upsets happen all the time, lower seeds come into games like this looking to prove what they can do against the best teams from the Power 5 conferences. Huggins believes that will be the case Friday as the Bulls come into the game with their aggressive, tenacious style of basketball against West Virginia.
"They've really adopted Bobby's personality. They really come after you, they compete and they do a great job of gang-guarding," Huggins said. "They really play without any fear, and that's a team that has already played Kentucky in Lexington, played Wisconsin at Wisconsin, so they're not going to be in awe of anybody."
Staten, Browne both 'good to go' for tournament
After missing both of its starting point guards for the final four games of the season, Huggins will finally have his full team at his disposal when the Mountaineers head to Columbus to take on Buffalo. West Virginia seniors Juwan Staten and Gary Browne both dressed for WVU's Big 12 quarterfinal game against Baylor, but neither played in the loss as they were still recovering from a knee and ankle injury, respectively.
Since getting back to Morgantown, the duo has been practicing more and will be ready for the Round of 64 game Friday.
"They're good," Huggins said. "They practiced yesterday. We're good to go."
Getting the two of them back will let WVU get back to normal with its trademark depth and chaotic full-court defense that has given opponents fits to solve and beat over the course of the season.
"When our numbers were depleted and that's my point guard and my backup point guard, so we were really playing with our third point guard, even though (Jevon Carter) did a great job," Huggins said. "We'd like to get back to normal and make the game go the way we want it to go."
The one positive that Huggins could draw from those two missing some time toward the end of the season was the added experience it gave the rest of the Mountaineers' young and generally inexperienced backcourt. No other guard on the roster aside from Staten and Browne had played in a Division I postseason game before last week in Kansas City.
Huggins has continued to be impressed by the maturity of those players, especially Carter and fellow freshman Daxter Miles.
"I might be wrong, but it just seems to me that those guys play without any fear anyway. They go right in there, stick their nose right in there and go to work," Huggins said. "Mentally, I guess, they're as ready as any freshmen I've had in a long, long time. They don't seem to care who it is or where it is, they just love to play."
Huggins: Big 12 has proven itself in the regular season
After clearly asserting its dominance in the regular season, the Big 12 Conference heads into the NCAA tournament with 70 percent of its league's members in the Field of 68 - a higher percentage than any other conference in the country.
When asked about whether or not the league should be happy with its success in the regular season or if that success will become overshadowed by a negative outlook if the seven teams don't perform as well as many predict them to in the postseason, Huggins said he believes there's no reason for the league to have to validate itself all over again just to prove what happened in the first 30 games or so wasn't a fluke. The conference has already shown that it's the best in college basketball - a good showing in the tournament would just add even more proof behind that statement.
"I don't know why we would need to do that, to be perfectly honest with you," Huggins said of needing to validate how good the league is in the NCAA tournament. "Sometimes what gets lost in the excitement of this month is that we've already played 30 games. When you have seven of our teams in the top 16 for strength of schedule and when you think about that and the fact that we're the No. 1 conference in the country in the RPI and you think about what we've done in 30 games, I don't think we've got a lot to prove.
"It'd be great if four of our teams ended up in the Sweet 16 or seven of them, really, but I think we've proven that over the test of time (we're the best conference). We have shown what we do."
Huggins joked that, partially, the media is to blame for how much more amplified things like upsets are during March Madness.
"(The media) influences them too. You guys are behind it 100 percent," Huggins joked. "It's an exciting time of year, and upsets happen. Upsets don't get nearly the attention in the regular season that they do in March, but you all need to go ahead and pat yourself on the back because you've done a heck of a job of convincing the general public of how important this is in March."