It’s truly back to the future for the West Virginia men’s basketball team.
The Mountaineers’ NCAA Tournament has taken them to Buffalo, and the arena now known as KeyBank Center. It’s the same facility that hosted WVU’s jumping off point to its Final Four run in 2010.
And now awaiting West Virginia in the second round on Saturday afternoon is another blast from the past – Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish and Mountaineers are former Big East rivals who each have gone separate ways in recent years. WVU left for the Big 12 after the 2011-12 season, while ND departed for the ACC a year later.
But for 17 seasons the two programs waged some memorable battles on the hardwood as Big East members, though Notre Dame prevailed more often than not. The Irish hold a 27-12 overall advantage over West Virginia, including a 17-6 mark when both were Big East. From 1999-2005, ND won 11 straight over the Mountaineers, and even WVU coach John Beilein managed just one win over the Irish in nine meetings. The series did even out when Bob Huggins arrived at West Virginia, as the two clubs split the next eight meetings before each headed out to different conferences. They haven’t faced off since the Irish swept a pair of games from WVU in the 2011-12 season, the Mountaineers last in the Big East.
That was five years ago, but the memories are still fresh for the respective head coaches, as Huggins is in his 10th year at WVU and Mike Brey is in his 17th season leading Notre Dame.
"We've had great games with West Virginia,” recalled Brey at Friday’s press conference in the KeyBank Center. “This is bringing back a lot of Big East memories. I'm thinking about our games certainly against John Beilein, and since Bob has been there. I guess my memory is, how hard the Mountaineer crowd was on us down there. It was one of the most brutal. I have heard some of the most unbelievable stuff. What I'd do was turn to my assistant and say, ‘God, that was a good one. He really ripped me on that one.’
“It's been unbelievable down there,” continued Brey, who holds a 14-5 record against WVU. “We had great games, great battles. The last game I remember in Morgantown, we had that two seed with Ben Hansbrough (in 2011). We go down there and West Virginia beat us (72-58). Jerry West's son (Jonnie) is a walk-on. Huggs throws him in the game, and he bangs down a three right across from our bench. I said right then, ‘We ain't winning today. Jerry’s son just hit a three. Let's go home and get ready for the next one.’ There were just some great match-ups. (Kevin) Pittsnogle with the ball screen, stepping back and shooting the three. (Da’Sean) Butler through the years. We played a lot of great games, a lot of great memories.”
For Huggins and the Mountaineers, one of their greatest runs included a victory over Notre Dame, as West Virginia defeated the Irish in the semifinals of the 2010 Big East Tournament on its way to its only title in that league.
"We had a hard time winning in South Bend, and they had a hard time winning in Morgantown,” remembered Huggins. “We were fortunate to beat them in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament in 2010 in Madison Square Garden. They had a three to win the game, but fortunately for us, not for them, it was short and got banged around a little bit and Wellington (Smith) grabbed the rebound. Actually Da'Sean Butler – nobody knows this – he ran over and hugged Wellington after he got the rebound. The reason he went over and hugged him was because Da'Sean did not block out his man, and he had a clear run at the goal and it just happened to bounce Wellington's way. So Da’ ran over and hugged Wells, because he said he would never have heard the end of it if his guy would have rebounded it and scored.”
The old rivals haven’t faced each other in the past five years, but they will square off in Buffalo with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.