It goes without saying that Saturday's regular-season finale between West Virginia and Louisville is one of the biggest games, at least in terms of buildup, of Bob Huggins's brief two-year tenure at his alma mater. Ever since the announcement was made back in the fall that ESPN's popular "College GameDay" program would be live from Morgantown on March 7, the buzz has been building.
No more than two hours after Wednesday night's 82-63 win over DePaul, a handful of students had already diligently pitched a tent outside the Gold (Student Entrance) gate at the WVU Coliseum. In the two days since, the number of tents has multiplied. At last check on Friday afternoon, upwards of 20 tents were setup in what the students occupying the space are now referring to as "Huggstown".
So many students have already shown up, in fact, that CSC Events Staff Security has been on hand all day Friday to keep watch over the area, which has since been marked off with steel gating.
While the mood outside the Coliseum is one of anticipation, the mood inside the 37-year old facility is all business. Even though Bob Huggins and his Mountaineers are already assured of at least the seventh seed in next week's Big East Championships at Madison Square Garden, WVU can finish as high as sixth with a win Saturday combined with a Syracuse loss at Marquette. Too, West Virginia is hoping to improve upon what one has to figure is already a decent seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
Standing in the way is Louisville, which has plenty to play for in its own right as the Cardinals can still clinch at least a share of the Big East's regular season championship, which would be its first since joining the conference for the 2005-06 season.
Back in January, the two schools met at Freedom Hall, with U of L then riding an eight-game winning streak. The Cardinals jumped on WVU early in the first half with their vaunted full-court pressure and held off a late second-half rally from the Mountaineers to preserve a 69-63 win.
Since that time, though, both teams have changed for the better. Louisville looks even better than it did just over a month ago, having won six straight Big East games entering Saturday and playing itself into a likely two or three seed come tournament time.
Meanwhile, the Mountaineers have enjoyed an easier schedule of late than what they had to endure for the first month of Big East play, which included two meetings with Pitt, the aforementioned game at Louisville, road trips to Marquette and Syracuse and a home game with Connecticut. With the easier schedule, WVU has clinched a winning conference season and first-round bye in New York. More importantly, virtually every player on the team is performing better than he did prior to that game in the Derby City.
"I think Alex (Ruoff) is playing better and Da'Sean (Butler) is playing better," Huggins said on Friday before practice. "Devin is, without a question, playing better. Kevin Jones is playing better. Rick's a great coach; (the Cardinals) are going to be better (than they were in January). Hopefully we'll be better, too."
The Mountaineers have reached this point despite playing three freshmen in their eight and sometimes only seven-man rotation. They also lost starting point guard Joe Mazzulla early in December with a season-ending shoulder injury. Even with all the adversity and inexperience, West Virginia has finished in the top half of the nation's toughest conference, and is also poised once again for a trip to the Big Dance.
According to Huggins, the credit belongs to the players who have put in the requisite time and effort to get the Mountaineers to this point.
"They're great guys," he said. "They aren't tall enough and they don't shoot well enough, but they try. They give you great effort every day and they've gotten better and better because they've worked so hard at it. They're coachable.
"If they weren't really coachable or they had someone who was divisive, we would have struggled," continued Huggins. "Because they are such great guys and they really want to win and they really do like each other and care about each other, it makes it really enjoyable."
Even with all the success this season, nothing would cap it off quite like a win over the Cardinals with the eyes of the college basketball world all focused on Morgantown.
"(The players) know what's at stake," Huggins concluded. "This isn't our first game or our second game. It is our 31st game, and they understand. They know what we need to do."