Opening Challenge

West Virginia head basketball coach Bob Huggins, like members of the NCAA selection committee, is impressed with Arizona, WVU's first round matchup in the NCAA tournament.

Despite 14 losses, the Wildcats, who played a difficult schedule while fighting several injuries, managed a number ten seed in the tournament, which begins on Thursday. WVU faces Arizona in the final game of the Thursday evening session in Washington, D.C.

"They are really talented," Huggins said on Monday as his team began preparations for the game. "They have gone through some injuries, and getting [injured guard Nic] Wise back has helped them solidify their backcourt. They run a lot of good things on offense, and they have two of the better players we've played all year in [Jerryd] Bayless and [Chase] Budinger."

Those two players combine for 37 points per game and give Arizona a very active offensive component. Both can drive and score from anywhere on the court, which makes the Wildcats very difficult to defend.

Under the direction of interim coach Kevin O'Neill, who is filling in for Lute Olson while the veteran coach finishes out a leave of absence, Arizona has implemented several strategies that take advantage of its mobile lineup.

"I think they are really good offensively," Huggins related. "Kevin has brought some things from NBA, and they shoot the ball so well. They spread you out."

O'Neill, who spent the past seven seasons with Detroit, Toronto and Indiana in the NBA, is one of Huggins' long term associates.

"I can't tell you everything I know about Kevin -- that wouldn't be good," Huggins joked. "We go way back to when we were both assistants. Then he got Marquette job and we faced each other in Conference USA. We had a great rivalry and a great friendship. We've done a lot of things for each other, like golf outings and Nike clinics."

Although Huggins routinely speaks on the phone with fellow members of the coaching fraternity, he hasn't done so with O'Neill this year. That might make facing the Wildcats a bit easier, and least from the friendship standpoint.

"We have talked about a lot of things in the past, but I haven't spoken with Kevin this year," Huggins noted. "We are good friends, and I am happy when any of my friends gets in the NCAA tournament. His teams are always competitive. They compete hard, are fundamentally sound and don't beat themselves. He puts guys into positions where they can be successful."

That's been a key for Huggins as well, who has made moves, such as putting Joe Alexander on the wing when West Virginia needed help in the post, because he had the chance to have a greater impact on both a personal and team level.

"He has scored the ball for us lately," Huggins noted with the wry understatement that is one of his trademarks in interview settings. "He is a talented guy, and he continues to learn and get better. He will be a good player because he wants to be a good player. He has worked very hard on his skill level."

This is Huggins' 16th NCAA tournament appearance, and even though it is his first at his alma mater, he hasn't given that factor much consideration.

"I haven't thought about that," he said. "We've been so consumed with getting there. I have been concerned with getting Darris and Jamie and Ted to the tournament because it's their final chance.

"The thing I am most excited about is that we just left the practice floor. We are still practicing, and still have an opportunity to play. When season starts, everyone wants to play in the NCAA tournament and have the chance to play and advance."

The key to doing so, according to Huggins, is the most basic of objects of the game.

"It's all about being able to make big shots, shots that count," Huggins explained. "I can't tell you how many times we've lost because we had a good shot and didn't make it or someone else made a big one that maybe they hadn't made before. Games are just so competitive now, that making the big shot makes the difference."

West Virginia will try to prime itself to do just that as it heads for the nation's capital on Tuesday. WVU will have a shootaround and interview sessions on Wednesday before Thursday night's game against the Wildcats.


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