In one sense, this most recent run through the Big East Championship is a trip down memory lane for West Virginia point guard Darris Nichols. As a freshman in the 2004-05 season, Nichols played a limited role as a reserve on John Beilein's Mountaineers as they made their way from the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble to the conference tournament finals and ultimately the Elite Eight.
In each of the four games in four days the Mountaineers played in that memorable run, the opposition was favored. And so it was on Thursday afternoon against Connecticut at least a little bit of déjà vu all over again for Nichols as he and his underdog teammates rose to the occasion to knock off the Huskies in front of a sold out crowd at Madison Square Garden.
"This is a great feeling," he said after the win over UConn. "I don't think anybody thought we would beat UConn except us, so that was kind of similar (compared to 2005) to be the underdog."
In another sense, however, this is completely uncharted territory for Nichols and the rest of the Mountaineers. In past years, when West Virginia entered the Big East Championship needing only one or two wins to pad the postseason resume, the goals were simply to play well and get those necessary wins.
"(In 205), it seemed like we didn't have a shot at the NCAA Tournament and that's what the story was, us playing our way into the NCAA Tournament," said Nichols. "I think that's what caused so much hype around the country."
This year? Not so much. From day one of his tenure in Morgantown, new head coach Bob Huggins has spoken of hanging a Big East Championship banner in the rafters of the WVU Coliseum. In his first trip to the Big Apple's marquee postseason event, Huggins and his team are showing the Big East that those outspoken goals are more than just talk.
Yes, the Mountaineers are unquestionably off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament following two wins in two days over hapless Providence and powerful Connecticut. But to listen to virtually everyone inside the crammed WVU locker room on Thursday afternoon, satisfaction and complacency are nowhere to be found.
"This year, we're not worried about seeds, we're not worried about the NCAAs," said junior guard Alex Ruoff. "Right now, we're here, and we're focused on winning the Big East Tournament."
Even before the Mountaineers arrived in New York City on Tuesday, the mantra of "in it to win it" was prevalent throughout the WVU basketball program. Prior to leaving Morgantown, Huggins and assistants Billy Hahn, Larry Harrison and Erik Martin made sure the team knew that they planned on an extended stay in the city that never sleeps. And to a T, every Mountaineer player has bought in.
"The coaches packed for five days, and so did we. We want to stay here as long as we can, and we're going to play as hard as we can," said sophomore forward Wellington Smith. "This is why we stay all summer and lift. We're ready for this.
"He didn't even have to tell us (to pack for five days), because we all knew," said junior forward Joe Alexander, arguably the most productive player in America over recent weeks with a scoring average of nearly 30 points per game. "None of us believe what the whole country seems to believe about us, which is that we're sub-par in the Big East and overrated. We believe in ourselves, and we believe we're a top tier team. We packed for five days on our own."
The next step towards trimming down the nets inside the basketball Mecca known as the World's Most Famous Arena comes tonight when West Virginia takes on the league's regular season champion, No. 9 Georgetown. A key for the Mountaineers in Thursday's win over the Huskies was knowing that a victory was possible if for no other reason than a second half run back on March 1, when West Virginia fell by seven at UConn.
In their lone previous meeting with the Hoyas, the Mountaineers hung wire-to-wire before falling victim to a late three by Jesse Sapp and the infamous non-call of a possible goal tend on what would have been a game-winning layup at the final horn. Even with the narrow loss, WVU knew prior to and following that game that it can play with Georgetown.
And even if they didn't have confidence from that game, a lack of self-esteem would certainly not an issue for this team at this point, particularly given the recent strides made by Alexander, a first-team all-Big East selection. Because while some around the country may see what West Virginia has done and say they have come far, the Mountaineers themselves look at it as a job only half complete.
"We know there are four games in this tournament," said sophomore Joe Mazzulla. "We have two left."
Added Alexander, "We're definitely in it to win it."