Although WVU will have to contend with waves of Xavier players who sport nearly identical statistical lines, and who get to the glass with an array of players, Musketeer head coach Sean Miller thinks his squad will also have its hands full in what promises to be another intriguing battle.
"We'll play a physical team, and a very well-coached team," he said. "We will have to be at our best to have a chance to beat them."
One of the key aspects of the game, according to Miller, is the tournament experience both teams have.
"You can't overstate that experience. The team we had from the Elite 8 year (when Miller was an assistant) had a great senior class. That was true last year and this year as well. The seniors this year have been great leaders, and they have been in college for four years. It's not like they just now became productive players. They were productive as freshmen. There's no question for us, that's what makes us go.
"West Virginia has great tournament experience too," the fourth-year head coach continued. "The seniors on this team, they went to a Sweet 16, and Elite 8, won an NIT championship and are back in the Sweet 16 again. Arguably, the run that some of those kids are on allows them to have great confidence. I don't think that [run] is paralleled by any other Sweet 16 team. We have been in the tournament three years in a row now, so we have some postseason experience as well. That may be more important than who the coach is. Coach K with all Duke success and all the experience he had – that didn't help him much with West Virginia."
While extolling the importance of experience for his players, Miller downplayed the suggestion that it might be a factor in the coaching battle. On that scorecard, he trails Bob Huggins, who has 26 years in charge, by a wide margin.
"It will be the team that plays best on Thursday that [advances]," Miller judged. "It's not about me. It's about our team. Both schools have been through tournaments with some success."
Miller also commented on the balance of his team as another factor that will weigh heavily in Thursday's game.
"That's not something that I aspire to do as a coach. It's just what we have," he said of a lineup that often puts five players on the court capable of creating shots and scoring in bunches. "We have six or seven guys who can score, and that has made us more consistent. It is one of the things that has made us good."
Miller will likely deploy a team approach to defend rising star Joe Alexander.
"I don't know if it will be just one person guarding him. Derrick Brown will be one, but there might be a number of players will be on him. He can score no matter whoever defends him. But I'm also worried about other players. Ruoff is a great shooter, and Nichols and Butler can score. They have Alexander, but he is surrounded by talented cast."
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Welcome to the coaching cliché' festival. Despite just a few seasons in the lead chair, Miller has mastered the art.
"It's a four-team, two-game tournament. Anything can happen. You want to put yourself in the best position to advance. We want to continue to do what we've done from day one and be the best we can be."
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Having crossed paths with West Virginia several times while playing at Pitt, Miller knows about the passion of WVU fans. He noted that he "doesn't hate anybody", but admitted that the WVU-Pitt games were bitter rivalries. He has another one on his hands as the coach of Xavier, which squares off against Cincinnati each year in a battle for Queen City supremacy. He faced Huggins in a pair of those games, going 1-1.
"Playing Coach Huggins in the Sweet 16 is a much bigger thing now," he noted.
It might be, however, that Miller is looking for a bit of payback from the earlier days of his relationship with Huggins. At that time, Miller was involved with the J.O. Straight (JOTS) AAU team in Pittsburgh, and coached them as a summer job.
"I remember my dad and I coaching, and Huggins coming in and taking all the good players," he joked.