West Virginia's men's team entered last year's Big East Tournament off a bad loss at Seton Hall, one that was then considered to have burst West Virginia's bubble. It forced the Mountaineers to beat underdog Providence in the tourney opener, and, as the NCAA field later revealed, pull an upset over top-seeded Boston College in the quarterfinals to seal a bid.
West Virginia (20-9, 11-5) enters this postseason having won home games versus red-hot Louisville and then-No. 8 Pitt before dropping a solid road loss at Cincinnati.
"Going into it, momentum is way overrated," WVU head coach John Beilein said Monday. "Look at how we went into it last year with a terrible loss at Seton Hall and we had a bad bus trip to get there (12 hours to New York). Our women went in with absolutely no momentum and now are in the semifinals. I think you get momentum being there, in the tournament."
West Virginia did last year. Its workmanlike, 23-point dispatching of Providence led to a beating of Boston College in its Big East finale'. That begat an upset win over Villanova, making the Mountaineers just the third team since The run, which quadrupaled the teams number of all-time Big East postseason wins, propelled WVU into the NCAA's, where it won three games to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since Jerry West led the 1959 team to the NCAA finals.
Now it can regain legs lost in the latter stages of a grueling slate. West Virginia showed signs of doing that against Cincinnati. It shot 51 percent as a team and hit 12 of 28 3-pointers, led by Mike Gansey's five-of-six effort. WVU, the worst rebounding team in the Big East and second-worst in the NCAA, was beaten just 30-26 on the boards via an inspiring performance by Kevin Pittsnogle.
"They had nothing to lose and gain, and we could have lain down," Beilein said of the 78-75 loss at UC. "We could have passed it up, but they showed the type of character they had. That type is what you get winning teams from."
And with its third four-day layoff in the final three weeks of the regular season and another coming with West Virginia's first-ever first round Big East bye, the Mountaineers should be as rested as anytime this season. It plays the winner of Louisville and Pitt at 9 p.m. Thursday on ESPN.
"Both teams are familiar with us. We played both in the last two weeks," Beilein said. "That will be a heck of a game. Louisville right now has been playing at the highest level they have all year. Either way it will be a very tough match-up for us."
Seeding in this Big East Tournament might be as irrelevant as ever. Cincinnati fancied itself an NCAA lock with its Senior Day win over West Virginia. But the No. 8 Bearcats (19-11, 8-8) might have to beat No. 9 Syracuse (19-11, 7-9) to get in. That game could decide both teams' fate, because the winner must play top-seeded Connecticut the next round. Seton Hall (18-10, 9-7), Rutgers (17-12, 7-9), Louisville (18-11, 6-10) and Georgetown (19-8, 10-6) are also trying to seal bids. The first two play in the opening round, and the Scarlett Knights are surely out with a loss. Louisville likely needs a win over Pitt, while the Hoyas are considered in.
"You look at the play-in games and it is absolutely incredible," Beilein said. "It looks to me like a Sweet 16 group. It is going to be very hard. Once you get to day four it is a matter of the opponent, because you will be tired. If one team just has more talent, it will be tough for another. But I think (the NCAA Selection Committee) will look at 27 or 28 or 29 games. I do not know if they look at how teams did in the conference. But it is incredible the depths they go into."
Beilein noted he had a better grasp of the Big East's depth after viewing the brackets. The conference is expected to get as many as eight bids this season.
"Doesn't this remind you of round three of the NCAA Tournament?" Beilein said. "I looked at those brackets, that's when it finally hit me what a great league we have. If those storied programs are playing to get to the quarterfinals, the league is bigger and better than what we thought it would be."
Pittsnogle and Gansey were named first-team all-Big East selections. It is the first time West Virginia has had two players on the first team. It had had just two prior players selected to the first team in school history.
Gansey averaged 17.4 points and had 57 steals and shot 55.7 percent from the field and 42.6 from behind the arc. Pittsnogle scored at a 19.4 points-per-game clip while managing 36 blocks and a team-high 76 3-pointers.
"We are thrilled because of the strength of the players in the Big East," Beilein said. "Kevin has went from tough times to coming off the beach to now. He is very deserving. Mike is another situation entirely. His season was cut a bit short three years ago. For him to be in the Big East Tournament, now especially as a three seed, I can't think of better people to have this happen to."
Connecticut's Rudy Gay and Syracuse's Gerry McNamara, the Big East Preseason Co-Players of the Year, were also on the 11-man first team, expanded after the league did the same. A Player of the Year will be named March 7. All 11 first-team players are eligible for that award as well.
Pittsnogle and Gansey were also named finalists for the Wooden Award, given to the nation's top player. They are two of 22 finalists. Several teams have two players nominated, including Michigan State (Maurice Ager and Paul Davis), Texas (LaMarcus Aldridge and P.J. Tucker), Villanova (Randy Foye and Allen Ray) and Duke (J.J. Redick and Sheldon Williams).
The Big East had the most players selected (five). The ACC had four.
The winner will be announced on Saturday, April 8, during a national CBS telecast of the ceremony that will air live at 2 p.m. from The Los Angeles Athletic Club. A panel of over 1,000 voters comprised of sports media members and college basketball experts will have until 3 p.m. on March 27 to cast their votes for both the 10-member All-American Team and Wooden Award recipient.