The Times West Virginian

March 17, 2014

WVU draws Georgetown in NIT 

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia is heading back into post-season play, but going to the NIT isn’t where it wanted to be and the Mountaineers’ first-round matchup certainly isn’t where they wanted it to be.

The Mountaineers drew a No. 5 seed in the NIT and will play their opening game against a long-time rival from their Big East days, heading to Washington, D.C., to play the Georgetown Hoyas at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night at the McDonough Arena on campus not at the Verizon Center.

“We’re happy to be able to continue play in the post-season,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “Obviously, we are playing a team that we are familiar with and a team that is familiar with us from our Big East battles. We’ve had great games recently with Georgetown and in Washington, D.C. at the NCAA tournament. Mountaineer Nation has always turned out in great numbers in games there, and I know they will be there on Tuesday.”

Georgetown finished 17-14 this year and was upset by DePaul in the opening round of the Big East Tournament. The Hoyas, as usual, were very difficult to beat at home, winning 12-of-15 games on their home court.

Georgetown played WVU in their first Big East game, beating the Mountaineers, 70-68, in a Coliseum thriller in which Victor Page scored 30 points for the Hoyas. The two teams have played 51 times going back to 1922 and it’s as close as it can be, Georgetown having won 26 times, WVU 25.

The Mountaineers, unable to build on its upset of No. 8 Kansas in the final game of the regular season, fell short of becoming the eighth Big 12 team in the NCAA Tournament when Texas blew them out of the water, 66-49, in their first game of the Big 12 Tournament.

That left WVU with a 17-15 record and even a 9-9 record and a sixth-place finish in the nation’s toughest conference wasn’t enough to overcome it.

So the Mountaineers found themselves back in the NIT, trying to lay the groundwork for a return to glory next season, much as last year’s NIT champions, Baylor, did this season.

It’s a recipe the Mountaineers followed once before. Back in 2007 they rushed to the NIT title with exciting victories over Mississippi State in the semifinal and Clemson in the Madison Square Garden final. Something along that line can only help this team without any seniors to develop for a run toward the NCAA tournament next season.

“Every game that we get to play together and build some more chemistry is great for the future,” star point guard Juwan Staten said, not sounding at all like a player heading toward the NBA. “Knowing that we’re not going to make it to the (NCAA) tournament is tough, but we still have games ahead of us.”

Staten had let it be known following a strong performance against Kansas that he was planning on testing the NBA waters, but after a 1-for-11 shooting performance against Texas, where he was virtually taken out of the game before he actually left with an ankle injury, the NBA looked a long, long ways away.

As for the ankle injury, before leaving Kansas City, Staten indicated he would be ready for either an NCAA or NIT game.

“Whether we play in a few days or a week or whatever, it doesn’t matter. The next game we play, I’ll be playing,” he said.

Certainly, there is a letdown from not making it to the NCAA’s, but as it was in 2007, it is not expected that will have an effect on the players.

“If it’s not for a trophy, then we want to play for each other, for Coach Huggins, for team pride and for the people that have supported us all year,” junior center Kevin Noreen said. “We can end the year on a high note … and get this bad taste out of our mouth.”

The bad taste was built in part as the team limped home after a mid-season high, losing six of its last nine games and being eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament, 66-49, by a Texas team that overpowered the Mountaineers three times during the regular season.

All six of the losses were by 10 or more points.

But the road to the NIT was laid early in the season when they failed to pick up a significant win during non-conference play.

An early loss to Virginia Tech was a dreadful omen of what was to come, the Mountaineers failing to hold a double-digit lead against a team they should have beaten handily.

The Mountaineers had numerous chances to pull off meaningful victories but lost close battles with Gonzaga, Purdue and Wisconsin.

The four top seeds in the NIT this year are Minnesota, Florida State, St. John’s and SMU.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel