The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

March 17, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN- An NIT run could still be worth it

MORGANTOWN — Hopefully, West Virginia University hasn’t outgrown the NIT.

It may not be basketball nirvana, but it has always has been a whole lot of fun.

Why, when everyone in the national is caught up in March Madness, do we find fun in March Sadness?

Because it’s basketball on a level that we qualified for in that year.

Was the Final Four run a few years back fun?

Of course. Even the dreadful ending, that with Da’Sean Butler lying injured on the court, the national semifinal already decided as a defeat to Duke, couldn’t erase the pride of getting there and the thrill of dumping Kentucky in Elite Eight.

But so, too, was winning that 2007 NIT, a victory run that gave pride to a season that lost it when the NCAA did not come calling.

Thrills?

Darius Nichols dropping home a 3-point shot with 2.1 seconds left to beat Mississippi State in Madison Square Garden and send WVU to the finals of the NIT still remains as one of the great game-ending moments in WVU history.

No, it doesn’t match Jarrod West’s shot that beat Bob Huggins and Cincinnati up in Utah, for that was in the NCAA, but at the moment it didn’t matter what tournament WVU was playing in; they had just pulled off one of those sports miracles that offers a momentary rush that is inexplicable.

That victory, coming on the heels of an unimaginable game in the Coliseum in which WVU survived, 71-66, over North Carolina State, offers the kind of evidence you can’t debate that there is basketball life after death in the NIT.

For that quarterfinal game 11,215 fans crowded into the Coliseum, gasping at every lead change, and that made a lot of gasping for there were 14 in all.

And when it was over, Frank Young — forgotten today as a Mountaineer hero but who, on that day, set the school record for career 3-point shots — and Alex Ruoff had punched WVU’s ticket to New York.

Young scored 25 points and Ruoff 15, but multiplied its value immeasurably with 11 assists.

NCAA? It wasn’t on the players’ minds that day.

“The only game I can compare it to is UCLA,” Young said. “It was amazing.”  

“I’ve been in games like that before in high school and college, but not many,” Ruoff said. “And I’ve never been in one where the loser went home for the rest of the season. That was a great, great game.”

And, when the Mountaineers beat Clemson in the final, it was not their first NIT title.

Indeed, it was the NIT, back when it truly was a national championship, that put WVU on the national map as they went to the old Madison Square Garden and took home the 1942 title.

Richard A. “Dyke” Raese had put together a basketball team like had been seen before at West Virginia, installing a faster and more entertaining style of play than had existed through the 1930s. In those days there was a center jump after every basket, which put a premium on big men and slowed things considerably.

But when that rule was erased, there was a basketball revolution and Raese was a part of it. He didn’t coach long, just four years before going off into the world to build a fortune that even today is felt in the state, his family still fighting over the broadcast rights to the university’s sporting events.

Raese was something of an amazing man. He did not play while attending WVU, instead learned the game from his roommate, Marshall “Sleepy” Glenn. Upon graduating he became a high school coach in his native Davis, W.Va., and immediately made an impact, so much that in 1939 he had two offers.

He could have coached basketball at WVU or football at Spencer High, opting for the WVU job even though it paid half of what the high school job would have paid.

Times have changed, haven’t they?

Slowly he built the team until 1942, with guard Scotty Hamilton and center Rudy Baric returning, he had the team he wanted. They won 12 of their first 13, struggled a bit down the stretch and closed out the year with a solid 41-33 victory over Duquesne, leaving them only a charity game against Salem to play.

That, they thought, was the end of the year but they were unaware than an NIT scout had seen them play at West Point and was considering them for the eighth spot in the NIT.

But they had to beat Salem.

So it was that a game that didn’t even count got them into the NIT field, the reward being a first-round matchup with Long Island University, a national power coached by Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee, himself a native of Grafton, which also happened to be WVU playmaker Scott Hamilton’s hometown.

Talk about underdogs. Here was Raese with a team lacking any scholarship players and no one taller than 6-foot-3. They had only eight regular players, Neil Montone having come over from football to help them with tournament preparations and Raese filling in as a 10th player when needed in practice.

Still, they knocked off LIU before 17,000 fans, then Toledo and, in the final, Western Kentucky for the school’s first national championship in a major sport.

Fun?

A group of West Virginians celebrating a national championship on Broadway, then going from Broadway to High Street for a welcome home parade.

If WVU wins this NIT championship, there will be no parade down High Street, but it might set off a celebration in the downtown bars.

After all, the NIT does produce fun.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel

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