The Mountaineers – as all opposing head coaches noted – are such comparative heavyweights that they might be tempted to overlook the mid-majors save one fact: Head coach John Beilein built teams at all levels and is keenly aware of the oh-so-slim difference between the mid-majors and major players.
His team, after all, just became one after years of Big East mediocrity.
"This is new ground for us to be invited to a tournament like this and be a site," Beilein said. "It's another step in the right direction for us as we try to keep up with the rest of the Big East. Hey, you guys can say all you want, but I have been at all the levels and I know every level can play ball and play with West Virginia. I have seen it."
Firsthand. Beilein's Richmond team ripped Gale Catlett-coached West Virginia in the first round of the NIT in 2001.
"We're excited for opportunity to face WVU, a top 15 team in the country," Louisiana Monroe head coach Orlando Early said. "I do think it's the West Virginia Invitational, though."
Said Fairleigh Dickenson head coach Tom Green, "I'd like to point out that there's no truth that the region is called the West Virginia regional even though we are all looking for that second place trophy."
That might be. But if West Virginia can't find that mindset and focus, it will miss what could prove to be pivotal games versus potential foes Kentucky, Texas and Iowa. Beilein even shrugs the possibility that his talent and scheme it too much to overcome for the welterweights.
"We have been humbled enough in my time here to remain grounded," Beilein said, referencing a loss to lowly Marshall last season. "It sounds crazy, but the paycheck is different, the atmosphere is different, the crowds are different, but the basketball is not that different. The suits we are wearing might be, but the coaches themselves are not.
"We keep that in mind and we find ways to remain the hunter despite the preseason reputation. I didn't pay any attention to it when we were 14th in the Big East, and I'm not paying attention now."
Gazelle Group representative Rick Giles said tickets are still available for all four regions. Fans can call 1-800-WVU-GAME for the Morgantown regional, which starts Saturday. West Virginia plays Louisiana Monroe following Wofford vs. Fairleigh Dickenson at 12:30 p.m.
WVU point guard Darris Nichols' brother, Shane, plays for Wofford. He sat out last season after transferring from St. Peters.
"The only downside is that West Virginia has the best shooter in the family. But we're happy to have him here," Young said.
Said Early of his LM team: "Our team is playing pretty good right now, though it's my first year so I don't have anything to gauge it by. We get better everyday and have four seniors looking to have good last seasons, so they are excited about going.
"Our two point guards, though, are freshmen and one broke his foot and is out. I'm still trying to explain the difference to the other between that 1-3-1 we will face and the 2-3 zone."
Green, who played at Syracuse, said Fairleigh Dickenson is still in its preliminary stages and will use the tournament to build upon fundamentals.
"Three weeks in isn't a good barometer to know how good of a team we will have," Green said. "I am looking forward to being there and trying to come out with a ‘W' if we can."
Former WVU assistant Ron Brown is Green's associate head coach. In his fourth year at FDU, Brown met Green when he was coaching West Virginia.
"I'll hopefully not get thrown out of any games this weekend," Green said, "but I feel comfortable with him being here. He knows how to coach and runs everything when I am away."
This tournament benefits the NABC and its core coaching values, and some profits will go to Kansas City when it opens its basketball hall of fame.
Guardians signed a deal with ESPN so that 10 of 16 games are nationally televised on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. ESPN360, an internet streaming site, will showcase two, while the Hawkeye network (University of Iowa) is to televise two. West Virginia vs. Louisiana Monroe is available only on ESPN360.