MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — After 13 regular seasons and 415 games as the coach of West Virginia's women's basketball team, it's safe to say this about what Mike Carey has today: He has a team unlike any other he's had before with the Mountaineers.
WVU claimed its share of the Big 12 regular-season championship by winning at home Tuesday night against Kansas. WVU hasn't worn a conference crown since 1992, Carey's fourth year as the men's coach at Salem.
WVU (27-3, 16-2 Big 12) will be the No. 2 seed in the weekend's Big 12 Tournament, which is not unprecedented. Carey's 2010 team was the No. 2 seed and played into the final of the Big East Tournament.
The Mountaineers lost to top-seeded UConn by 28 points and the Huskies, maybe the best team the women's game has ever seen, was on its way to a 39-0 record.
All of that leads to this: With his first regular-season title in his pocket, Carey moves on with his first legitimate look at a conference tournament title. The Mountaineers open at 7 p.m. Saturday at Oklahoma City's Chesapeake Energy Arena against the winner of Friday's game between No. 7 seed TCU and No. 10 seed Texas Tech.
"Every time we'd play a conference tournament, we were paying Connecticut on their home floor," Carey remembered of his Big East days, where the league tournament was played on UConn's home floor in WVU's final nine seasons there. "It's kind of tough playing Connecticut on its home floor."
The Big East had the Huskies, but also Notre Dame, which played for national titles in 2011 and 2012. Rutgers was almost always a highly ranked team early on and Louisville made its climb later in WVU's time in the conference. The Mountaineers made a name for themselves, and they could beat Louisville and Rutgers and even Notre Dame, but never UConn.
In just the second season in the Big 12, WVU has proven to be the equal of Baylor, which won the national title in 2012, the year before the Mountaineers joined.
No. 7 WVU has never been ranked as highly entering the postseason as it now. It's never had a better seed for a postseason tournament. It's never had a winning streak as long as this 10-game tear entering the conference bracket.
Carey's just never had a team in a better position to win a conference tournament championship, and he's admits as much, even if he's maybe never been as disinterested.
"It's nice if it happens, but it's never been a goal of mine," he said. "My goal is to get a great seed and a great location for the NCAA Tournament and to do something in the NCAAs. That's what I've talked to them about, just how important each game is because it's all about NCAA seeding."
History says WVU has a chance to help itself. Carey's first two teams went 0-1 in the Big East Tournament and missed the postseason. Since then, his teams have won 13 conference tournament games and at least one in eight of those 10 seasons. Carey has won one game in five of his seven NCAA Tournaments and four games and one game in his two WNIT appearances.
"Last year we didn't, but in the Big East, we always did well in the conference tournament," Carey said. "My goal is the NCAAs. We can't go out there and hurt our seeding and all that stuff. If we go down there and win it, great. If we go down there and don't win it, that's OK as long as we don't hurt our seeding. That's the most important thing."
The Mountaineers are unlikely to earn a No. 1 seed with a conference tournament championship, but they can secure a No. 2 seed if they can extend their winning streak. WVU beat Texas Tech by 19 and 22 points, but only beat TCU by four points both times. If WVU gets through that game, it plays the winner of No. 3 seed Texas vs. No. 6 seed Oklahoma. WVU split with the Longhorns this season, with each team winning a home game by single digits, and swept the Sooners by 14 points at home and one point on the road. A rubber match with Baylor could only happen in the final.
WVU lost its first game in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments last season, the only time Carey's team has done that. Otherwise, his teams play a style that's difficult to anticipate with short preparation periods. Carey said this team has another wrinkle others didn't possess.
"I think it's our pressure defense and how hard we play," Carey said, "plus our scoring average."
WVU holds teams to 57.8 points per game and 35.1 percent shooting, both second-best in the conference, and has blocked the second-most shots and forced the second-highest number of turnovers. More importantly, WVU averages 74.4 points per game. That's well above the previous high of 69.2 points in 2008 and far better than the 63.8 points last season.
"If you play pressure defense and can be at least even on the boards, or control the boards, and you score on top of that, you've got a pretty good shot," Carey said. "The key this year is (6-foot-5 center) Asya Bussie (13.2 points per game). She gets double-teamed and kicks it out and people have wide-open shots. It's a matter of hitting those shots, but we can do that."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.