What History Tells Us About West Virginia’s NCAA Hopes
The Mountaineer men’s basketball team will soon embark on another journey into the NCAA Tournament unknown.
We do know a couple things, mainly the where (San Diego) and when (Friday, Mach 16 at 3:45 p.m. Eastern time).
Other than that, who knows? The ride can end after one game or last as long as six.
During its run to the Big 12 Tournament championship game this past week, we saw West Virginia from all sides. It played very well in victories over Baylor and Texas Tech, but the inconsistency that has haunted WVU at times this season raised its ugly head in the second half of the title game loss to Kansas.
So, who knows what to expect from the 24-9 Mountaineers once they get to San Diego.
West Virginia’s 11th-year head coach Bob Huggins has certainly changed what is “expected” for the Mountaineers when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, he’s probably raised the bar too high. In a conversation with a downtrodden WVU fan after a recent loss, he said, “I don’t know if this team can even get past the Sweet 16.” Like that’s the worst thing in the world.
Obviously everyone has dreams of the ultimate prize, but it’s only recently that West Virginia’s expectations were so high that the Sweet 16 was viewed as the norm and not reason for celebration.
Prior to 2005, the Mountaineers advanced past the second round in the NCAA Tournament just twice in school history – 1959 when the Jerry West-led Mountaineers made it all the way to the championship game before falling to California, and in 1998 when wins over Temple and Cincinnati in Boise sent Gale Catlett’s squad on to the Sweet 16 where the magic ended with a hard-luck 65-62 loss to eventually national runners-up Utah.
Out of its first 18 NCAA appearances, WVU won enough to make it to today’s equivalent of the Sweet 16 just twice. In the first 40 years after the departure of Jerry West and then Rod Thorn, just getting an NCAA berth was a major accomplishment. West Virginia made just two NCAA appearances from Thorn’s graduation in 1963 until Catlett resurrected the program in the early ‘80s. And other than the 1959 and 1998, advancing in the tournament was an extreme rarity for the Mountaineers.
But John Beilein started to reverse that trend in 2005, leading West Virginia to the Elite Eight that year and then the Sweet 16 the next.
And now Huggins has completely changed expectations, having guided the Mountaineers to the Sweet 16 four times in his 10 previous seasons. That equals the number of Sweet 16 runs for every other WVU coach combined.
Under Huggins, West Virginia is 11-8 in NCAA Tournament action. Prior to Huggs and Beilein (5-2 in his two NCAAs at WVU), West Virginia was 11-18 in NCAA Tourney play, if you don’t count a couple regional consolation games that used to be played after earlier losses.
Huggins’ Mountaineers have lost in the first round just three times in their eight NCAA appearances since he took at his alma mater in the summer of 2007. Two of those came upset fashion against a higher seed – 2009 when sixth-seeded WVU lost to 11th-seeded Dayton, 68-60 in Minneapolis, and in 2016 when three-seed WVU lost to 14-seed Stephen F. Austin in Brooklyn. West Virginia is 5-3 under Huggs in all opening round games and 5-2 when the higher seed. Few of those first-round games have been easy, though, as only one (the 2010 win over Morgan State 77-50) has been by more than 10 points.
In all NCAA games under Huggins, West Virginia is 9-2 when facing a team that is a lower seed and 2-6 when facing a higher-seeded opponent. That goes along with WVU’s all-time NCAA record since the seeding process started in 1978. In its 18 NCAA appearances in that time under coaches Catlett, Beilien and Huggins, WVU is 13-4 when the higher seed and 9-14 when it is the lower seed.
What’s that say for this weekend in San Diego? History would indicate a hard-fought Mountaineer win over 12-seeded Murray State (26-5) in game one. The game two breakdown will be determined who emerges from the first-round contest between four-seeded Wichita State (25-7) and 13-seeded Marshall (24-10).
Of course, while history is a good predictor, it isn’t perfect. And this year’s West Virginia squad can confound almost all historical facts. Anything is possible with the 2017-18 Mountaineers.