This hallowed ground has become much more familiar for West Virginia University’s men’s basketball team since Bob Huggins assumed control.
This Sweet Sixteen appearance is WVU’s fourth in Huggins’ 10 seasons in Morgantown. The Mountaineers have reached at least this perch in two of the last three seasons. The last time that happened was a Sweet Sixteen showing in 2008, Huggins’ first season, followed by the Mountaineers’ memorable Final Four run of 2010.
(That also ended a span of four trips to at least the Sweet 16 in the six seasons that marked the end of John Beilein’s tenure and the start of Huggins’.)
Before Huggins arrived? Since the NCAA tournament moved to 64 teams in 1985, the Mountaineers had made it out of the tournament’s first weekend a grand total of three times — in 1998 with Gale Catlett and Beilein’s 2005 and 2006 runs. So the magnitude of this accomplishment doesn’t come just from the fact WVU has reached this level. It also comes from the fact that the Mountaineers are doing it with much more regularity.
West Virginia is playing like it belongs. And that wasn’t lost on Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey.
“They’ve got the look,” Brey said after his Fighting Irish never led in an 83-71 second-round loss Saturday to the Mountaineers. “They can play for a while.”
Saturday’s win definitely was the look of a contender — forcing a team that rarely turns over the ball into 13 turnovers, shooting better than 50 percent overall and from 3-point range and shooting 81 percent from the free-throw line.
The Mountaineers looked like they belonged. As the final seconds ticked away, there was some bouncing on the sidelines, some high-fives and hugs as the buzzer sounded. It was an appropriate celebration for a team that reached an important milestone, but wasn’t stunned that it made it. West Virginia has higher aspirations.
Those aspirations include a West Region semifinal against No. 1 seed Gonzaga. Speaking of history, recent history isn’t kind to WVU in terms of both the Bulldogs and Sweet Sixteen games against No. 1 seeds. Gonzaga ended WVU’s 2012 NCAA tournament after just one game, a 77-54 throttling in Pittsburgh. And the Mountaineers’ last Sweet Sixteen — versus 2015 Midwest Region top seed Kentucky — ended bitterly. The Wildcats ran away early and kept widening the distance, winning 78-39.
This, though, is a different team. It doesn’t have a superstar, but a bunch of players who understand their roles. Nathan Adrian scored just three points against Notre Dame, but Charles Barkley made a point to mention him in his postgame comments for the five rebounds, four assists and all the other little things that didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but did put WVU over the top.
West Virginia heads to San Jose, California, looking like a contender, like a team that believes these Sweet Sixteen trips come too often to be flukes. If the Mountaineers continue acting like a contender — by playing as they did in dispatching Notre Dame — they can stand toe to toe with a top seed.