MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Late Friday afternoon, Mike Carey and his West Virginia women's basketball team hopped on a bus and headed for Newark, Del., and today's first-round game in the NCAA tournament.Forgive the Mountaineers if they've forgotten what bus trips are like. It's only their fourth of the season."The NCAA says this is a bus trip [anything within 300 miles of campus; this one is 275], but the [WVU] administration said if we wanted to fly they'd fly us,'' Carey said before departing. "But I'm happier to bus. We'll watch a couple of movies. We'll have some fun."The only time I don't like to bus is if you lose. And then that [return trip] is the longest bus ride in America.''Well, here's the thing about West Virginia and first-round games in the NCAA tournament: The Mountaineer women don't often lose. In fact, of the eight prior NCAAs in which they've played, they are 7-1 in their openers.Then again, WVU is also 0-7 in those second-round games, so maybe busing back after a loss might still be in the cards.That's down the road, though. First up for WVU is that first-round game today. It's an interesting one for a couple of reasons.First, it's against Delaware. On the Blue Hens' home floor. That would be 5,000-seat Bob Carpenter Arena, which doesn't exactly bring to mind traditional Division I NCAA tournament sites.This isn't the men's tournament, though, where mega-arenas are required and home teams prohibited from playing there. It's the women's tournament, which despite phenomenal growth over the years still must cater to economic realities.If you bid for it - and the NCAA accepts the bid - they will come."People ask me why we haven't done that, but I'm kind of scared of that,'' Carey said. "If we put in a bid and we don't make it, I'm probably going to be in a little bit of trouble. We'd lose a lot of money. You'd better be pretty sure you're going to get in if you're going to put a bid in.''Of course, the fact that West Virginia managed to get in this year was a bit of a surprise - not based on preseason expectations, but on regular-season realities. The Mountaineers were highly regarded in the preseason, ranked in the Top 25 and with almost every crucial piece returning from a 24-win team.But in the second practice of the season, last year's leading scorer, Asya Bussie, blew out her knee. On Jan. 19, reserve Akilah Bethel did the same thing, and then in the final regular-season game another member of the rotation, Jess Harlee, went down with her knee injury.
Somehow, though, through the rigors of all that travel to Big 12 outposts and the injuries and everything else, West Virginia managed to fashion a 17-13 record, go 9-9 in conference play and survive a current three-game losing streak to make it into the NCAA field for the fourth straight season and the sixth time in the last 10.What that got them was a No. 11 seed and today's first-round game against No. 6 seed Delaware. Which brings up the second interesting thing about today's game. Her name is Elena Delle Donne.
If you've never heard of Delle Donne, well, you're excused. Some people won't pay attention to women's basketball no matter what.But Delle Donne is famous as much for her back story as for the fact that at 25.3 points per game she is the second-leading scorer in Division I. Four years ago she was the No. 1 recruit in the country and a Geno Auriemma prize catch at Connecticut.But the 6-foot-5 guard - yes, a 6-5 women's guard - spent about 10 seconds on the UConn campus, got homesick and left. She returned home to Wilmington, Del., in part because she couldn't leave her older sister, Lizzie, who is deaf and blind, and in part because she was just homesick and burned out on big-time basketball.So what did she do back home? She enrolled at Delaware and walked onto the volleyball team. A year later she gave up volleyball and joined the basketball team.
And thus a basketball powerhouse was born. The Blue Dons are 30-3 this season and ranked No. 15.Now, mix those two things together - playing against perhaps the best all-round player in the college game and against a 30-3 team on its home floor - and there seems plenty of reason for pessimism regarding West Virginia's chances in today's 12:15 p.m. game.
Funny thing, though. There's not much pessimism at all."I think this team plays very well with their backs up against the wall,'' WVU senior center Ayana Dunning said. "And we do a good job of playing on the road. I think in the Big 12 we had a better road record than we did at home.''Indeed, West Virginia was 5-4 on the road and 4-5 at home in Big 12 games. And it's not like the Mountaineers haven't played great players, either. If Delle Donne is the best all-round player in the country, she's probably not the player of the year. That would be Baylor's Brittney Griner. In fact, over the last two years WVU has faced (or will have faced after today) all four of the finalists for the Naismith Player of the Year award - Delle Donne, Griner, Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins and Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike.So it's not as if they're going to be in awe.Still, Delle Donne is pretty special, a 6-5 guard who shoots 49 percent on 3s and handles the ball."What I remember about her is the touch that she had,'' said Dunning, who played with Delle Donne in the McDonald's All-America game when both were high school seniors. "She can shoot the ball from anywhere. And to be 6-5 and be able to do that is such a great advantage. You don't find many women's guards that play that position at that height."But she's not going to beat us alone. She only scores 25 points a game.''Only, of course, is a relative thing. Averaging only 25 points makes Delle Donne one of the top scorers in the country, male or female, but Dunning's point is well taken. West Virginia isn't going to lose 25-to-anything or even 30 or 35 to whatever the Mountaineers might score.Delle Donne is going to have to have some help."We just need to focus on stopping everybody else and not letting anyone else have career nights,'' Dunning said.Still, Carey isn't about to let Delle Donne just have whatever points she wants."We're going to cheat some,'' Carey said. "I don't want to say where we're cheating, but we just have to hope a couple of them don't have career nights. And if they start having career nights then we'll have to go guard them, and that leaves her one-on-one a lot.''Carey will also have you know that Delaware just might be more bummed over its first-round draw than WVU apparently is. The Mountaineers are pretty used to tough NCAA draws. In each of the last two years the Mountaineers were in an 8-9 game that led to a second-rounder with a No. 1 seed, first Baylor and then Stanford.This year it's Delaware that sits there with a No. 6 seed and finds itself paired with a low seed, but from a power conference that sent seven of its 10 teams to the tournament."I wouldn't want to do that if we were a higher seed, going in and playing those types of teams,'' Carey said. "Not only are we tested, we're tested on the road, we're tested traveling and we [have some experienced players]. Yeah, if I'm Delaware I'm not real happy about the draw.''In other words, it's a matchup that could delay that bus trip back by a couple of days.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.