WVU Faces OVC Champion Racers In San Diego
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia could go coast to coast – and that’s not merely a basketball term.
In an NCAA Tournament twist, the Mountaineers must go to San Diego, the most western regional location, to potentially play the first and second round games in the East bracket. Seeded fifth, WVU will face 12-seed Murray State on the southern California coast on Friday at 4 p.m. eastern. A win would pit West Virginia against the winner of 13-seed Marshall – which reached the tournament for the first time in 31 years – and four-seed Wichita State.
A pair of victories would then have the team traveling back across the country to play in Boston against either top-seeded Villanova, 16-seed LIU-Brooklyn, eight-seed Virginia Tech or nine-seed Alabama in the Sweet 16. Total mileage flown on the first leg: 4,860 miles round trip from Morgantown to San Diego.
It was thought West Virginia (24-10) was a probably four-seed, an that a win over Kansas in the Big 12 Championship final could push the Mountaineers to a three. As it was, WVU is in a dreaded 12 vs 5 match-up, which is among the more common upset games in the tournament. In the past five seasons – meaning a total of 20 5 vs 12 games – the No. 12 seeds won half.
“Whatever it is you still have to go play,” head coach Bob Huggins said. “We are going to worry about going and playing and not the seed. I’m fine with it. We played in San Diego in 2001 (when Huggins was at Cincinnati) and I thought it was a great place to play.”
Huggins was as truthful as he could be, noting that the possible travel from San Diego to Boston “doesn’t make sense. We played in San Diego (at Cincinnati) and then went to Anaheim. That makes sense. I don’t know what goes into it, to be honest. It’s a long way to go. I thought we were going to Boise, to be honest.”
That’s a reference to a running joke that Huggins and Kentucky head coach John Calipari have about the selection committee always pairing WVU against Kentucky in the postseason. Of West Virginia’s last six NCAA Tournament appearances, it has faced Kentucky three times. As it ended up, the Wildcats are also a five-seed, matched up against Davidson in the South Region.
For WVU, there’s the potential of a contest against Marshall should both advance. The Herd would have to defeat Wichita State, a four-seed which finished their inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference with a 25-7 overall record.
“Wichita State is pretty good,” Huggins said. “That’ll be a hard game, I think. But if Marshall can get them spread, they very well could get them.”
Of now the Mountaineers turn their attention to Murray State. The Racers (26-5) received an automatic bid after winning the Ohio Valley Conference tournament title and have won 13 consecutive games. Under third-year head coach Matt McMahon, Murray State is shooting 49 percent from the field and is excellent from the line at 72 percent as well. McMahon also has Big 12 connection, serving as an assistant under current Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm at MSU for four years before being named the Racers head coach when Prohm went to ISU.
The Mountaineers are 10-2 all-time versus OVC teams but have never played Murray State.
“That’s a good league,” Huggins said. “I coached in that league at Akron.”
West Virginia was one of seven Big 12 teams to get bids. Kansas was a top-seed, while Texas Tech is a 3, WVU is a 5, TCU a 6 and Kansas State a 9. Texas and Oklahoma are both 10s. Baylor was among the first four teams out, as the Big 12 garnered the third-most bids behind nine from the ACC and eight from the SEC. No league matched the 10-team Big 12 in terms of percentage of participants at 70.
“It’s up to the committee as to how they use the numbers, but it’s all numbers,” Huggins said. “We beat the No. 1 team in the field (in Virginia). Oklahoma State beat Miami. The truth of the matter is if we are a three or a five, what does it matter? We are still going to play the same people. There are a lot of things. Texas Tech didn’t have Keenan Evans at the end. Maybe they took that into consideration.
“It’s a hard thing, particularly given the absolutes that they can’t do. You can’t play a conference team until (the third round). The number one seeds get to play closest to home and all those things. There are a lot of rules. You don’t go one through 64 and bracket it that way. There are a lot of variables.”
West Virginia will depart Morgantown on Wednesday. The Mountaineers have had wildly different NCAA Tournament experiences after losing in the Big 12 title game each of the last three seasons. In 2016, WVU was thumped by Stephen F. Austin in a 14 vs 3 match-up that became as nightmare. Last season West Virginia defeated Bucknell and Notre Dame to reach the Sweet 16 before pushing top-seeded Gonzaga to the wire in a 61-58 loss.
“Three years ago we didn’t come back at all,” Huggins said of his team’s mental recovery. “It was as uninspired and as bad of practices as I have had the whole time I have been here and then we go and lose to Stephen F. Austin. Other than that we have been pretty good. We have until Friday, so we will be recouped and ready to go.