To be sure, the majority of the fun was in the waning minutes, and the time immediately following, WVU's 89-68 win over Baylor. Players mixed with students on the court, coaches hugged and reveled in the win, and the student section and fans belted out a rousing rendition of Country Roads. But there was also fulfillment to be found in simply playing such a contest. That's an often overlooked aspect of the college game, but one that's very important to the athletes involved.
In some ways it's more of a visceral reaction than an overt one. Other than in the last couple of minutes of a contest with the outcome secured, there isn't a lot of time for reflection or appreciation of the scene. (“You can't take a second off with Huggs -- as soon as you do you are going to mess up and he's going to take you out,” Brandon Watkins observes.) However, on some level, there's an appreciation for getting to play in an environment that many college players never experience – going up against a top rated team in front of a sold-out crowd.
“It's a blessing,” said Esa Ahamd after win. “To go up against the number one team, and to play how we played, all 40 minutes, that was great. It doesn't get any better than that.”
For some, nervousness might come in to play. For others, it's anticipation, and the desire to prove oneself against some of the best competition in the country. But for all, the fun is there on some level, and that was evident in the smiles and enthusiastic responses to questions about this simple angle. That's what got them started playing the game, and what drove them during their formative years. Add in the stage on which this game was played, and it goes beyond just winning.
”I talked to my mom [the morning of the game] and she said, 'Do you know you are about to play the number one team?'” Watkins related “It's not like last year, because I was on the bench watching. I was thinking, 'Man, this is crazy.' I had a great time out there. It was just fun.”
Nathan Adrian, who had a monster game with 22 points, six rebounds and an unofficial record for floor burns in a game, agreed.
“It's definitely special. These are the games you come to college for, and the games you look forward to all year. You get to do this year in and year out in the Big 12. Sometimes, [you can get caught up in it], but we do try to enjoy every moment, because it seems like it's as soon as it's here, it's gone.”
For an outside observer, playing for a coach like Bob Huggins might not appear to be fun. His honesty, direct approach and rock-concert decibel level doesn't bring fun to mind, but it's well-documented that his players respect him and keep ties with him throughout their lives. In an around-the-corner way, that probably contributes to the fun on the court. After making it through Camp Huggs and grueling practices, the games are a bit less demanding. And what's more fun than pleasing your coach?
”It's always fun knocking off a number one team,” said a jubilant Tarik Phillip, who admits that he sometimes gets caught up the competition and misses a bit of the enjoyment. “This is what we work so hard for, playing great teams like this. They happened to be number one, so that made it even better.”