After a long season filled with plenty of adversity for the Mountaineers, March Madness can now officially commence. On Wednesday, West Virginia will open what it hopes to be an extended stay in New York City against the winner of today's Notre Dame-Rutgers game.
The best news of all for WVU is that, unlike most years, it will arrive at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday not needing to do anything else to sew up an NCAA tournament berth.
Win or lose against either the Fighting Irish or the Scarlet Knights, the Mountaineers are in. For a team with three freshmen in its top six, no true center and a rookie point guard being baptized by fire in this league, that is quite an accomplishment.
Its one thing to win a lot of games with a ton of talented players, as Bob Huggins did for much of his time at Cincinnati and plans to do for the rest of his career in Morgantown. It's another thing to do it with a group of overachievers such as this. What Huggins has accomplished in his first two seasons at WVU is nothing short of amazing.
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I've got to tip my cap to the BGN.com boss, Kevin Kinder, for sharing his prophetic words of wisdom with me several weeks back.
On the night before the Louisville game, Kinder, my father and myself were discussing WVU's NCAA tournament prospects. Having been the low-man on the staff totem pole for runs to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in 2005 and 2006, respectively, I did not get to cover the tournament either of those years.
Last season, I was still shining the shoes of staff veteran Matt Keller, though I did manage to score a ticket to the Sweet 16 in Phoenix thanks to a well-connected friend.
As the Mountaineers tried to stay afloat through a treacherous first half of the Big East schedule that included trips to Marquette, Louisville and Syracuse, I wondered if the team would have anything left in the tank once the schedule hollowed out towards the end of the season.
Running down the schedule, Kinder assured me that Huggins and company would find a way to tread water before finishing strong. They have done precisely that.
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What are the keys for the Mountaineers both this week and next as the season enters "win or go home" time? First, they must continue to defend at a high level. That's a given, and generally shouldn't be much of a worry for a team as defensively stout as WVU.
Keep a close eye, however, on West Virginia's ability to defend the three. In the win over DePaul last Wednesday, the Mountaineers gave up a season-high 11 made 3's, seven of which came from Will Walker. Against Louisville, WVU gave up nine 3's, five of which came from Cardinals' standout Terence Williams.
For virtually the entire season, the Mountaineers have had the best three-point field goal percentage defense in the Big East. More often than not, they have guarded the ball tightly and switched on every screen, something they can afford to do with a lineup that normally includes three or four players of roughly equal size.
Hopefully, the successes of Walker and Williams are more the product of those two players getting hot than they are of any sort of exposed weakness in West Virginia's defensive attack.
The biggest key offensively is to make shots. We've heard those words from Huggins and his players for much of the season, and with good reason. When WVU shoots at least 50 percent from the field, it is 7-0 this season. In its 21 wins, West Virginia has made 46.7 percent of its shots from the field. In the 10 losses, that shooting percentage drops to 35.5 percent.
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Saturday's halftime tribute to the 1958-59 national runner-up team was fitting and certainly proper. The Coliseum crowd stood and applauded for the duration of the ceremony as each player paraded down the carpet, with the loudest cheers naturally coming for the great Jerry West and legendary coach Fred Schaus.
I also liked the highlight video before the players were introduced. Without a doubt, it was the greatest team in school history (though the year before could have been even better had point guard Don Vincent not suffered a broken ankle that sidelined him for the remainder of the season). Of course seeing as how the run to the Final Four came some 35 years before I was around, I had never seen much tape of that magical year. Though the video was brief, it at least gave myself and others who weren't around yet a little bit of a greater appreciation for what they did.
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Finally, the news broke Monday that Florida junior college standout Casey Mitchell has decided to cast his lot with the Mountaineers for his two remaining seasons of collegiate eligibility. When Mitchell signs his letter-of-intent next month, he'll join an already-impressive group of signees (Dan Jennings, Deniz Kilicli and Dalton Pepper) to comprise WVU's 2009 recruiting class.
While it's probably a bit too early to look ahead to next year, I can't help but be encouraged about West Virginia's chances in 2009-10. Add Mitchell to a roster that will include senior Da'Sean Butler (who at worst will be an all-Big East candidate next season) and improved sophomores Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant and the Mountaineers will likely have a little more offensive firepower next season, even with the loss of Ruoff. Add to that the fact that, as always is the case under Huggins, the team will be expected to play at a high level defensively and…well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.
For now, we'll concentrate on New York.