MORGANTOWN - When West Virginia opens play in the Big East tournament Wednesday afternoon, it won't be the last time the team plays at Madison Square Garden, no matter the result.But every time the Mountaineers step on the floor this week - whether it be one time or four or anything in between - it could be their last time playing in the Big East tournament.If there are unintended consequences to bolting the Big East for the Big 12 next season, consider that to be the most depressing. Bob Huggins certainly feels that way."I think playing in Madison Square Garden is a thrill for everybody,'' Huggins said. "I know when I played there it was a thrill - going to the Garden, the history. And this is our last time."It's not the last time we're going to play in New York obviously. I mean, we're going to try to play [non-conference] games in the Garden. But the Big East tournament, there's not anything like it.''For West Virginia, the beginning of the end is at noon Wednesday when the No. 8-seeded Mountaineers (19-12) face either No. 9 Connecticut (18-12) or No. 16 DePaul (12-18). Those two play a first-round game at noon today with the winner advancing.If West Virginia wins Wednesday, it would then face No. 1-seeded and No. 2-ranked Syracuse (30-1) in the Thursday quarterfinals, also at noon. The semifinals of the tournament are Friday night and the finals Saturday night. All of the games WVU would play will be televised by ESPN.A difficult draw? Certainly. Connecticut is the defending tournament and national champion and Syracuse an almost certain No. 1 seed in this year's NCAA tournament.
But it's pretty much a given that any draw in the Big East is going to be difficult. That's one of the reasons the tournament is so highly regarded, perhaps unlike any other in the country."There are tournaments where a couple of teams will have [fans],'' Huggins said. "Like when I was at Cincinnati it was Cincinnati and Louisville and the rest of the teams didn't bring a whole lot of people. This is different."They tell me that Friday night is the hardest ticket in New York all year. With everything that goes on in New York, Friday night's the hardest ticket. For something to captivate the city of New York like that, it's a special deal.''It has not always been that special for West Virginia, of course. The Mountaineers have been in the Big East since 1995-96 and until the 2005 tournament won just one game.
But since that 2005 team raced into the finals before losing to Syracuse, WVU is 11-6 in the event and won it for the first time in 2010. Only twice in the last seven years have the Mountaineers been ousted in their first tournament game.Then again, both times West Virginia had at least a one-round bye, the Mountaineers lost to a team that warmed up with a first-round game, including last year against Marquette. It's understandable, then, that Huggins had mixed feelings about surprisingly sliding into the eighth and final bye position when Seton Hall lost at DePaul on Saturday.WVU is one of four teams that get a pass through the first round. Four others get a two-round bye into the Thursday quarterfinals.
"I think you have mixed feelings about it,'' Huggins said. "I think we're the only team since they instituted the double bye that's won [the tournament] with a double bye. I think sometimes you get the jitters out or whatever the first game."But it helps us in the long run. If we can get by Connecticut and beat Syracuse it sure helps us.''On Wednesday, though, the Mountaineers are most likely to play a team that a year ago proved that even a one-round bye isn't necessary. Connecticut was in the same position in 2011 with the No. 9 seed and won five games in five days to win the tournament.Perhaps, though, West Virginia will get a boost from this being its last appearance in the tournament. The cornerstones around which this year's team is built are seniors Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant. Jones is playing a short train ride from his home in Mount Vernon, just north of the city, and Bryant is subway token away from his in Brooklyn. Starting freshman point guard Jabarie Hinds is also from Mount Vernon and backup center Dominique Rutledge is another short train ride from his home in Newark, N.J.That's not quite like it was in 2010, when a WVU team whose entire starting five was made up of New York area players - including Jones and Bryant. But the Garden still has a special place for a lot of this year's team."It means a lot. It's where I'm from, playing metro basketball,'' said Jones. "It would be special winning there not only in the program's last time going there but my last time, too.''
BRIEFLY: Jones has a chance at another Garden memory today. The Big East will announce its player of the year between sessions of the first round and Jones is considered among the most likely candidates along with Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. The league will also name its coach and rookie of the year and top scholar-athlete today. ... Four other awards were announced Monday. Syracuse players won the defensive player of the year award (Fab Melo) and sixth man of the year (Dion Waiters). Notre Dame's Jack Cooley was named most improved and Georgetown's Jason Clark won the sportsmanship award.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.