Kevin Jones and the Mountaineers begin their trip through the NCAA tournament Thursday against No. 7 seed Gonzaga in Pittsburgh, Pa.
MORGANTOWN - Never have Kevin Jones and West Virginia's basketball team been happier to be going to Pittsburgh."Usually it's a place you have to drag us to go and play,'' Jones said Sunday night. "But this is nice.''Indeed, not only did the Mountaineers find themselves safely tucked into the NCAA tournament bracket when it was announced Sunday, they were given the shortest trip possible to play their opening game.A No. 10 seed, West Virginia (19-13) will face No. 7 seed Gonzaga (25-6) at 7:20 p.m. Thursday at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. The winner is in a position to face No. 2 seed Ohio State in the second round.
For a team that struggled down the stretch just to maintain its position in the field, the bracket couldn't have been much kinder in terms of location. Gonzaga will travel through three time zones to face a lower-seeded team that is 75 minutes down the road."It's going to be a home game for them,'' Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "That'll be the hardest thing.''The only down side for West Virginia might be one of distractions, which coach Bob Huggins was quick to quip about after the field was announced."What makes you think I'm happy?'' Huggins said. "You're not going to get the ticket requests I am.''Well, if that's the worst of Huggins' problems, he'll take it.It's not, of course. Gonzaga is a tournament-tested team that is making its 14th consecutive NCAA appearance and is ranked higher than the Mountaineers in virtually every litmus test. The Bulldogs are ranked in both major polls (No. 24 by the Associated Press, No. 25 by the coaches), are No. 24 in the RPI (WVU is No. 56) and won eight of their last 11 games while the Mountaineers were losing eight of their final 12.
Still, this is a new season and West Virginia will treat it as such."I think we can beat anybody on any night,'' West Virginia guard Truck Bryant said. "Then again, we can lose to anybody on any night. We just have to play and go all out.''To a man, West Virginia's players said that when they sat down to watch the selection show Sunday evening, they were confident they would be in the field. But they also seemed rather surprised that they would earn a spot in a tournament pod so close to home.The Mountaineers have played at the Consol Energy Center just once, beating Duquesne there last season."I knew we'd be in. I just wanted to see who and where we'd play,'' said Bryant, who along with Jones will be making a fourth straight appearance in the tournament (it is the fifth straight for the Mountaineers). "That's a great location. It's right down the block.''
Whether or not that will translate into a large fan following, though, remains to be seen. There are a couple of things that could factor into that.First, West Virginia will get no more than the usual ticket allotment, the same as Gonzaga and the other six teams playing there. And after tickets for staff, players' and coaches' families, etc., are taken out, that could be no more than a couple hundred tickets.The second variable, of course, is that while Pitt is not in the field, many of the fans with tickets to the games will be from Pittsburgh. That could work against the Mountaineers if they decide to join whatever fans Gonzaga brings to the games."We need all the help we can get, so I hope it helps,'' Huggins said when asked if there was any advantage to playing so close to home. "We're only going to get our allotment. Hopefully our fans can find ways to get tickets. They did when we went to [Washington, D.C. in 2008 and beat Arizona and Duke]. Hopefully they can do it again.''For his part, Gonzaga's Few wasn't thrilled with the draw and the site, but he's not raising a fuss over it, even though four years ago his team was in a similar situation, seeded seventh and playing No. 10 Davidson in North Carolina. The Bulldogs lost that one."That's always hard to swallow, but there's so much criteria that goes into these things ... you start worrying about the 7 and 10 seeds, you'd never get it one,'' Few said. "But it's tough. That's twice we've been in this situation.''
West Virginia has never faced Gonzaga, but Huggins has. His Cincinnati teams were 1-1 against the Bulldogs, winning an early-season game in 1999-2000 when the Bearcats were ranked No. 1, and losing in the first round of the 2003 NCAA tournament.It was in that 74-69 loss that both Huggins and a radio color commentator from Cincinnati were ejected from the game.West Virginia was one of nine Big East teams to make the tournament field, two short of the record the league sent last season, but still the second-highest number from one conference in the tournament's history. The other Big East teams in the field are Syracuse (a No. 1 seed), Marquette (3), Georgetown (3), Louisville (4), Cincinnati (6), Notre Dame (7), Connecticut (9) and South Florida (12).BRIEFLY: Of the 15 players on Gonzaga's roster, seven are from outside the United States, including four of the five starters. The top three scorers are Canadian freshman guard Kevin Pangos (13.8 points per game); 6-7, 240-pound German forward Elias Harris (13.1); and 7-foot Canadian center Robert Sacre (11.7). The four games in Pittsburgh Thursday begin with Kansas State-Southern Miss at 12:40 p.m., followed by Syracuse against UNC-Asheville. West Virginia and Gonzaga tip off the night session, followed by Ohio State against Loyola. There were 112 Division I teams with at least 20 wins this season. West Virginia was not one of them and is the only at-large team in the field without 20 wins.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1