Just minutes after finding out they would be playing Bucknell in the opening round of the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, West Virginia players and head coach Bob Huggins met with the media to share their initial reactions on the matchup. While they hadn’t started prep work for the Bison just yet, one thing became clear: the Mountaineers are going to take preparation very seriously for their first round contest.
Just one year ago the Mountaineers found themselves in an eerily similar situation. Although they were seeded one line higher (WVU was a No. 3 seed in 2016), they were coming off a loss in the Big 12 championship and were heavily favored to beat the No. 14 Stephen F. Austin and take on Notre Dame in the round of 32. Once again, West Virginia enters the tournament after falling in the Big 12 championship game and will be favored to beat a mid-major program (although a good one) to likely play Notre Dame in the second round. This year, however, West Virginia is trying not to let a loss in the Big 12 title game beat it twice.
“I don’t think we bounced back from our loss to Kansas (in last year’s Big 12 Tournament championship) like we should have,” recalled senior forward Nate Adrian. “We were a little lackadaisical. The same thing happened this year, so we have to learn from our mistakes last year and not let it happen again.” That makes enough sense, but if you ask Huggins, he’s not necessarily buying it.
“You’re smart enough not to believe that,” stated Huggins. “They dwelled on it for a week? Please. They were over it by the time the plane landed in Morgantown. That’s how young people are.”
Instead, Huggins believes it was solely a lack of focus in practice that did in the Mountaineers in the week leading up to the 2016 first round contest with Stephen F. Austin.
“We had no enthusiasm,” remembered Huggins. “We were kind of just out there. We were horrible. We had no effort, no enthusiasm, and we acted like we didn’t want to be there. I don’t think I have ever had a team that was that bad in practice as consistently as we were that week. Most people are excited about playing in the NCAA Tournament.”
You already know the veteran head coach has shared his sentiment with his players, and as a result, each one had a similar response when asked about the way they will prepare for this year’s opening game against Bucknell.
“I think we have to come in and play focused,” said Adrian, who will be playing in his third NCAA Tournament. “We can’t look past our opponent, which honestly we did last year. We have to play as hard as we can. I have no other choice. If I lose, then I’m done. So I, maybe more so than other guys, have to step up and play better.”
“It’s going to take everybody,” acknowledged junior point guard Jevon Carter. “We have to go out there and give it our all. It could very easily be my last game playing with Nate and the other seniors, and I’m just not looking forward to that being a short route.”
Carter is a player who has often been praised for his preparation habits and hard work by Huggins, so there is a little doubt that the junior from Maywood, Ill., will put in an inordinate amount of elbow grease leading up to Thursday’s game. But preparing for an NCAA Tournament game is a little different. Carter has faced every Big 12 team at least six times in his career, so there is a sense of familiarity with the scheme and the players.
But Bucknell is not a foe that he and his teammates are know, at least not yet. WVU holds an 8-0 all-time record against the Bisons, but the programs haven’t met in 40 years.
“I look at my opponent as being the best point guard in the country no matter who it is, so it really doesn’t matter too much to me,” Carter said of the 26-8 Patriot League champions. “I’m going to try to see how (Bucknell) likes to score and how their guards like to score – whether they have a passfirst or shoot-first mentality, whether or not they like to go left or right or drive or shoot. I’m just looking for anything I can find out.”
The lack of familiarity with both teams could give West Virginia an edge because its pressure defense and 1-31 zone are so unique. And at the very least, having five days between the Big 12 championship and the NCAA’s opening round should pay dividends.
“It’s a little different going out and playing a team that you haven’t seen two or three times a year,” admitted Adrian. “You don’t know too much about them, and you have to pay attention to your scout a little more. But we have four days to prepare for them, so it will be alright.”