MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — WVU men’s basketball had a hill to climb this winter as it tried to play its way into the NCAA Tournament. On Sunday, they completed that climb when it earned its bid as a 9-seed, setting up a matchup with 8-seed Maryland in Birmingham, Alabama.
This year’s team has several Mountaineers that will make their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament, so this opportunity is the pay-off of more than a season’s worth of hard work on the part of the Mountaineers.
“Obviously, they were excited to play,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins. “They weren’t jumping up and down, but they were excited to play.”
The tournament bid is also the confirmation of Huggins’ season-long confidence that his team would make it to the Big Dance.
WVU was out of the projected field as recently as February as it got off to a shaky start in Big 12 play. That start was characterized by narrow, disappointing losses, some of which would have greatly boosted their NCAA Tournament resume, including a 16-point collapse at Kansas State, which earned a 3-seed on Sunday.
Since all five of WVU’s losses to open the league slate came by single digits, Huggins knew his team was on the verge of an NCAA Tournament bid.
“We were close enough, I think, every game to feel like we could have or should have won. You look back at some of the games we lost, I mean Oklahoma State obviously, we should have won that one.”
The Mountaineers re-entered the bubble picture in mid-February and gradually played its way up. By the season finale, they were slated to be an 11-seed.
After three more games, WVU had fought its way off the bubble and earned its spot as a No. 9.
“I’m good with it,” Huggins said. “Obviously, we wanted to win more games, but I just think we had some things happen.”
The veteran coach has had plenty of success in March in his career, reaching four Sweet Sixteens at WVU and making the Final Four twice in his career. It goes without saying he hopes his team can make a similar run this year, and he believes his players understand the necessary mentality for a push.
“I think at that time of the year, one, I think your guys understand that it’s one-and-done, which I think they’re more attentive, they play harder and so forth and so on,” Huggins said. “I think at that time of the year, that’s something that they look forward to.”
Huggins has some homework to do before Thursday’s 12:15 p.m. ET tip-off. He has led WVU against the Terrrapins in the NCAA Tournament before, last meeting UMD in the Round of 32 in 2015. He has also gone up against first-year coach Kevin Willard, who spent more than a decade at Seton Hall before moving to College Park.
Times have changed quite a bit in the time since both of those have happened, however. Huggins said he will get going watching some film on the squad so he can build a good gameplay.
“I’ll have a much, much better idea here in a day or two,” he said.