West Virginia's head coach bemoaned a lack of enthusiasm prior to last season's first-round NCAA Tournament loss to 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin. While the 'Jacks were arguably the worst low-seed first round match-up possible for the Mountaineers because of their similar uptempo, pressing style, WVU compounded the physical issues with mental ones as a series of practices leading into the game were lethargic and completely lacking in focus. It was, as Huggins has said, a prime example of what happens when defeating foes, and advancing in a one-and-done set-up, are assumed rather than striven for.
"I was very honest about the fact that I didn't think our practices were very good leading in a year ago," Huggins said. "I thought we kind of took Stephen F. Austin for granted, and they were a really good team. That was a terrible mistake. This year, we've been much, much better, but I think probably, to a large degree, (it's because) of having so many of those guys back that went through the experience a year ago."
Like Nate Adrian, Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles, Tarik Phillip and, perhaps the player most upset by the Big 12 Championship title game loss to Iowa State in Elijah Macon. Macon was the embodiment of frustrated, upset, disappointed and angry after the defeat, and his typical mild-mannered self nature took a nose dive of raw emotions. And every single one was warranted, and showed exactly what this team needed in again finding its passion and enthusiasm for playing. West Virginia had lost its playfulness, its joie de vivre, and replaced it with steady stoicism. But this is a team, and program, that is at its best when it reflects their head coach and his drive for excellence, and when it can balance that with a dose of joviality.
"Leaving from the Big 12 and everybody being let down, we have been more into our practices now," Macon said. "Everybody has been a lot more focused on things. There has been a lot more energy. I can definitely see that everybody is ready. Getting back there after making it the year before and wanting to win so bad, (the Big 12 championship) was tough for me. It was just a hard game. You just gotta be ready to play. You get another chance to finish your season. This is a whole other basketball season. A lot of teams are done. You have to look at the upside of it and be positive about it and try to make the best of it and win every game you can while you can in the tournament."
West Virginia has taken that fresh approach, hit the reset button on the season, and become mentally ready to make an NCAA Tournament run. The players, to a man, are relaxed, refocused and have honed in on Bucknell and Bucknell alone. For many of them, the next loss is their last at the collegiate level. And it's more than feasible that the Patriot League champions, at 26-8 and with an RPI higher than that of Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Temple, among others, has the ability to pull the upset.
"It's been brought up several times, but the taste is still in our mouths, coach's mouths, players' mouths," Phillip said of the early NCAA exit last season. "We don't try to dwell on it too much, but it's still in the back of our mind that we lost in the first round to a team we should have beat. I feel like the players have been more dialed in, locked in to knowing their scout, knowing their plays. There's been a lot of energy in practice."