CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- To get into the proper spirit of this final West Virginia Conference men's basketball tournament, consider the history of the West Virginia State-University of Charleston rivalry.At 7:30 tonight at UC's Eddie King Gym, the Kanawha Valley schools will play for the 12th time in WVC tournament play but just the second time this millennium. This will be the fifth time they have met in a first-round game but just the first time on a campus site.The have met in every possible round, save for the long-since-retired consolation game, and that includes the 1962 championship game. UC leads that historical series 6-4, winning four times under its old Morris Harvey moniker.But it has been awhile since one team was a perceived prohibitive favorite, as UC enters as the fifth seed and State is 12th. It has been 11 long years since the Yellow Jackets have failed to finish in the top eight seeds, thus being sent on the road for the first round.
The distance from Institute to UC's MacCorkle Avenue campus is short but the gap between the teams appeared to be large just three days ago. The Golden Eagles and the Jackets met in the season finale and it wasn't close - UC piled up a 32-point lead early in the second half en route to a 92-75 win.The teams' first meeting was even more lopsided, as the Eagles (18-8) romped to a 92-56 win. But State (10-18) gets one more try tonight."I told our guys everybody's zero and zero," State coach Bryan Poore said Saturday. "We have the same right as anyone else to win this thing."Everybody has the "right" to lose tonight, except for top seed West Liberty. The Hilltoppers (27-1) blew through the league for their fourth regular-season title on a row, thus earning a first-round bye. Ranked No. 3 in NCAA Division II, they'll appear next at 8:30 p.m. in a tournament quarterfinal Thursday the Civic Center, playing the Pitt Johnstown-Concord winner.That first-rounder will be the West Virginia swan song for UPJ (14-2), which heads to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference with Seton Hill next year. An 86-76 win over the Mountain Cats helped give Concord (16-10) home-court advantage.Seton Hill (15-11) hosts West Virginia Wesleyan (12-14) in a 7-vs.-10 matchup, No. 6 Shepherd (15-11) hosts No. 11 Glenville State (12-15), No. 2 Fairmont State (19-7) hosts No. 15 Ohio Valley (3-25), No. 4 Wheeling Jesuit (17-9) hosts No. 13 Davis & Elkins (8-18) and No. 14 Bluefield State (4-22) travels to No. 3 Alderson-Broaddus (18-8).The latter game pits two teams on the outside of the WVC teams breaking away to form the Mountain East Conference with two Ohio schools and one from western Virginia. Other teams in the same boat are Davis & Elkins and Ohio Valley.Tonight's winners join West Liberty in the quarterfinals Thursday at the Civic Center. The Hilltoppers are top-ranked in the Division II Atlantic Region and appear to be a good bet to host that eight-team gathering. A-B and Wheeling Jesuit are ranked seventh and 10th, respectively, and have work to do.But as Poore pointed out, every team has the right to win its way to the tournament championship and automatic bid, and that process begins tonight.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@ wvgazette.com, or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.