By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
West Virginia looks to take a step forward by taking a step backward tonight as the Mountaineers travel to Washington, D.C., to face old Big East rival Georgetown in the opening round of the NIT.
The game is being played at McDonough Arena, which looks like a high school gym with a thyroid condition, seating just 2,500, which will create an atmosphere that coach Bob Huggins expects to be “wild.”
The Verizon Center, which is normally Georgetown’s home court and where they compiled a 12-3 record this year, is not available because Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus is in town … and there will no cracks about them getting their clowns from Congress.
Georgetown is the home team via its No. 4 seed in the Southern Regional that has Florida State as its top seed. The Hoyas were 17-14 during the regular season, 15-9 as late as Feb. 10 with a win over No. 7 Michigan State.
Since then those teams have gone in dramatically different directions, the Spartans being considered prime contenders to win the national title while the Hoyas have dropped five of seven down the stretch, including a dreadful upset to last-place DePaul in the Big East Tournament.
West Virginia’s woes are well known, earning it the No. 5 seed after its own late-season swoon saw the Mountaineers drop five of their last seven games, including an embarrassing Big 12 Tournament loss to Texas.
WVU trails 24-25 in the all-time series, which dates back to 1922, but the Mountaineers have won the last five meetings and five of seven in which Huggins has coached against Georgetown coach John Thompson III.
Having that familiarity with Thompson III and the Princeton style offense that he runs has to be an advantage for Huggins in his game prep, with only Monday to really get his team ready for the game, although he isn’t so sure.
While claiming he had no players who went back to the last meeting, a rather significant one in that WVU dumped the then-9th ranked Hoyas, 74-62, on Jan. 7, 2012, the Mountaineers’ last victory over a ranked team before they beat Kansas State this February at home, there actually are two in Gary Browne and Kevin Noreen.
Both played in that game with Browne actually scoring 12 points in 19 minutes of action.
His point was that he didn’t really have players who could relate to the Georgetown offense or defense at the moment, so having faced them a couple of years ago wasn’t very much help in preparation.
That led to wondering, however, how much of matchups are really the players as opposed to coach vs. coach, and with Huggins holding a 5-2 advantage face-to-face against JTIII does he go into the game feeling any sense of security.
“I never really got into that,” Huggins answered. “When I was first at Cincinnati, we played Indiana and someone pointed out it was me against Coach Knight.”
His reply at the time?
“If it’s me against Coach Knight, I’m going to win because I’m much younger and a better player.”
“But it never was me against Coach Knight,” Huggins said on Monday. “It was his team and they were always extremely well prepared. We’ve always tried to be extremely well prepared. I think it’s more a matter of doing your job than it is you against anybody else.”
At this time, though, the challenge is multiplied in any number of ways, beginning with a lack of time to prepare for both coaches.
Add to that a perception neither wants to deal with, that of this being a Big East vs. Big 12 showdown with the Mountaineers being one of the teams that jumped out of the Big East and left it teetering on the brink of collapse.
That is of no consequence to either coach, however, as they are focusing inward to their own teams and what playing in the post-season can do for them.
Thompson is likewise trying to put his team together, playing without Josh Smith, Georgetown’s 6-foot-10 center, who is academically ineligible. That makes the Hoyas much easier to match up with for a Mountaineer team that has no size.
“They still get it at the rim,” Huggins noted.
Huggins, of course, has a team with no seniors that needs to find a way to not only get more experience but to end this post-season better than the regular season ended.
“We want to win and end the season on a positive note and use it as a springboard to next year,” Huggins said.
If West Virginia can win this game, the Mountaineers will face the winner of the No. 1-seed Florida State’s battle with Florida Gulf Coast. If Florida Gulf Coast wins, the game would be at the Coliseum, and that is a real possibility.
You might recall FGC became the darlings of the NCAA Tournament, a No. 15 seed who advanced to the round of 16 before losing to Florida.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel