Heading into Sunday night's 6:00 P.M. selection show, the Mountaineers were not viewed by anyone with half a brain to be anywhere close to the proverbial tournament bubble. For the better part of 40 minutes, though, they sat and waited without hearing their name called.
After the first three brackets were unveiled, West Virginia was still waiting to see it's name posted. The mood inside the ballroom at Morgantown's Waterfront Place hotel was still confident, but the longer the wait was, the more tense it grew, at least for some.
"I was sweating," admitted junior Alex Ruoff, one of the few Mountaineers that have played in a previous NCAA Tournament. "People were making jokes to keep us calm, but I was still sweating, thinking the worse. It was fun, even though the heart was racing a little bit."
"It figures that we'd have to wait until the last pick to find out whether we're in or not," added sophomore point guard Joe Mazzulla with a roll of the eyes.
Despite the wait, the important news was finally revealed on the bottom half of the final bracket when it was announced that the seventh-seeded Mountaineeers would face off with the Arizona Wildcats, an annual participant in the Big Dance.
The news, understandably, sent WVU players and coaches into celebration mode. Head coach Bob Huggins smiled and applauded while sitting on a couch viewing the pairings. Ruoff reacted by staying seated, but moving his arms up and down in awkward fashion eerily reminiscent of a bad 1980's dance. Da'Sean Butler, who like many of his teammates felt the sting of rejection one year ago when the Mountaineers were left out of the NCAAs and dispatched to the NIT, couldn't contain his excitement. The talented sophomore lept out of his seat and began dancing euphorically around the room, though the bit isn't likely to land him on Dancing With The Stars anytime soon.
"I was just happy," said Butler with a grin. "Everybody said we were in. Last year we were sitting there and didn't get in, and this year we waited until the last bracket before getting the call. The fact that we're in, I just wanted to celebrate."
So too did senior center Jamie Smalligan. After three coaches and two schools in five seasons of college basketball, the East Grand Rapids, Mich. native will finally take the floor in an NCAA tournament game for the first time in his well-traveled career.
"The whole goal this season was to get into the tournament and have a chance to make a run," he said. "I feel great about being a seven seed, being close to home, and who we're playing against. I think we're in a good position to do something big."
Doing something big begins with beating the Wildcats, which of course will be no small feat. With three days to prepare for an unfamiliar opponent, the players are ready to buckle down and do whatever it takes to win in round one. Then, if fortunate enough to move on, they'll do the same for the next, and so on and so forth.
After taking care of business in New York City with a pair of wins in the Big East Championships, the consensus around the locker room is that the winning isn't ending anytime soon.
"It goes back to all the hard work we've gone through since the end of last season," said Mazzulla. "We left the Big East Tournament not satisfied. Now we have to go out, stay focused, and do what we have to do."
Only a handful of players remain from the last group of Mountaineers to make it to the NCAA Tournament. Of them, only point guard Darris Nichols played a significant role in that 2006 run to the Sweet 16. Ruoff and forward Joe Alexander were true freshmen on that squad, and saw very limited minutes for John Beilein's team.
"I was a spectator," Ruoff said. "Man, that was great, that run we had my freshman year. I was just happy to be a part of it."
While Ruoff still carries the memories of that run, he can't wait to carve his own path with this team in this tournament.
"I get a chance to make my own run and be a big contributor on the team. That's something I've been waiting for and working for."
The season has been full of hard work, and Sunday was certainly full of waiting. Now, with the task at hand clearly identified, it's time for WVU to see just how far it can go.