With the regular season now in the rearview mirror, West Virginia and head coach Bob Huggins have set their sights on what the Mountaineers hope will be a lengthy stay in the postseason. The first step in doing so begins on Wednesday in New York City, where seventh-seeded WVU will face either Notre Dame or Rutgers in the second round of the 2009 Big East Championships.
For the first time since expanding the league in 2005, all 16 teams will be invited to Madison Square Garden for the annual event. Opening round games will tipoff on Tuesday for the bottom eight seeds. By virtue of their seventh-place finish, the Mountaineers actually receive a first-round bye this year under the new setup. In previous years, only the top four finishers were given byes.
According to Huggins, having the first day off has both positives and negatives.
"Sometimes it's almost better you play a game," Huggins admitted. "You get the jitters out. We didn't play very well against Providence a year ago (in what was then the opening round of the tournament as only 12 teams made it to MSG). I think for the long run, you need to have the bye. Sometimes I think in your first game and they've already played a game, it's almost kind of an advantage for them."
Of course the longer a team stays in the tournament, the more evident fatigue becomes. If one of the lower eight seeds makes it to Saturday night's championship game, that school will be playing its fifth game in as many days. Seeds five through eight would have to play four in four days, while the top four seeds don't take the court until Thursday's quarterfinals, meaning they would have to play just three games in three days.
Syracuse is the only team to win the tournament after having played four games in four days, pulling the feat in 2006 thanks to an unbelievable four days from then-senior guard Gerry McNamara.
Unlike previous years, there will be no Big East Awards banquet at the beginning of this year's tournament. Normally, the league convenes on the eve of the tournament to recognize individual award winners. With the tournament starting a day earlier this year, it would effectively take student-athletes from the top four seeds out of school for an entire week as they would be in New York beginning Monday even when they don't play until Thursday.
On Sunday, the conference began announcing its postseason honors with the unveiling of the all-Big East teams. Instead of honoring 10 players on each team, only five were selected (or six in the event of a tie). WVU's Da'Sean Butler, averaging better than 18 points per game in Big East play, was named to the second team.
"If things were the way they've been, Da'Sean would have been a first team guy," Huggins admitted. "We used to have 10 on the first team. I think it's a great honor for Da'Sean."
On the league's five-man all-rookie team, freshman forward Devin Ebanks was honored. Ebanks, who signed with WVU last spring after being released from his letter-of-intent with Indiana, has recorded 10 double-doubles while starting all but one game for the Mountaineers. Despite a public plea from Huggins last week, fellow freshman forward Kevin Jones was left off of the all-Rookie Team.
"I think there's great freshmen in this league and I think it's a great honor for Devin (Ebanks)," Huggins said. "Kevin (Jones) had to be close. Kevin had to be somewhere real close to the top five. Devin has just gotten better and better. In Big East play, he's averaging 11 points and eight rebounds a game. That's pretty good for anybody."
On Monday, the first individual awards were announced. Senior guard Alex Ruoff was given the league's Sportsmanship Award, marking the second consecutive season that the honor has gone to a Mountaineer. Former point guard Darris Nichols walked away with the hardware last season.
"I think it's very well deserved," Huggins said of his lone senior. "He's a great kid on the floor and off the floor. He's been a great student and a great leader for us. He's been involved in numerous community endeavors and not just here in Morgantown – he's traveled throughout the state to be involved in worthwhile causes. I think without question he's deserving."
More individual awards will be announced on Tuesday. Ruoff will likely be in contention for the Big East Men's Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award, which was also won by a WVU player – Ted Talkington – last season.