The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

March 9, 2011

WVU opens defense of Big East Tournament title

MORGANTOWN — Perhaps because the season has been such an uneven ride with 10 defeats, it is hard to remember that West Virginia University is the defending champion of this year’s Big East Tournament, and until someone else is crowned, it is the Big East champion.

Rest assured, Bob Huggins and his team that begins play in tonight’s late game against Marquette have no intention of ceding the tournament to anyone else.

“If you’re going to play the games, you might as well win them,” Huggins said before leaving for New York’s Madison Square Garden.

A year ago, you might recall, WVU came into the tournament not exactly favored. Oh, people knew the Mountaineers were good, but they had never won the tournament, and there were teams like Villanova and Georgetown and Syracuse who were thought to be loaded.

That allowed WVU to sneak in the back door, as did a format change that gave the top four seeds a double bye, a change that only WVU would survive as the other three lost their first game.

This year, as defending champion, that bright New York spotlight is shining on the Mountaineers, and teams will take them as seriously as they ever have.

Huggins doesn’t mind. He believes his team has peaked at the right time, winning its last three, two of them against Notre Dame and Louisville.

He understands how other teams view the Mountaineers.

“The truth is everyone is going to say you’ve got to rebound when they are going to play us. They’ll say, ‘If we don’t rebound they’ll kill us on the glass.’ They’ll say ‘They’re gonna guard you so you have to make open shots.’

“I don’t think the fact that we’re defending champion matters that much. It might matter in the locker room before they run out, but a few minutes into the game it’s back to playing basketball.”

And when that happens, Huggins believes his team has a bit of an advantage.

“All of these guys were there last year. They have experience winning the tournament,” he said.

There is something to knowing how to win with the nation’s attention on you in the Mecca of college basketball. True, it would help if Da’Sean Butler, Wellington Smith and Devin Ebanks were back, but that isn’t going to happen.

Instead, there’s Joe Mazzulla running the show, now with Truck Bryant in the backcourt. Coming off the bench with guns blazing is Casey Mitchell, who has proven when he’s on he can change game quicker than you can say “He shoots; he scores.”

And up front Kevin Jones has taken charge of the team, pulling down double figure rebounds on a nightly basis and scoring more and more, capping it with 25 against Louisville as an appetizer for the Big East.

Is WVU favored?

No way. There is no favorite.

“It’s kind of what Denny (Crum) said about winning the national championship,” Huggins said. “’You have to be lucky, and you can’t be unlucky.’ Da’(Sean Butler) made some miraculous shots last year. You look at the Big East champions through the years, and they’ve had some fortunate things happen for them.

“This league is so competitive and the teams are so even you have to make shots. We could have easily been in the championship game in the tournament when K.J. and those guys were freshmen. If Devin’s shot falls we’re playing Louisville for the championship.”

As for this year, it’s wide open.

“I think it is reasonable to expect we can win it, but you can say that about 10 or 11 teams in this league,” Huggins said. “if you get hot at the right time, if you make some shots, if you get a break once in a while, you can win.

“Games are going to be close. Everybody is too bunched together. What’d we win by last year? Two points the first game, one the second, two the third game?”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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