MORGANTOWN — Written off and left for dead when it opened its Big 12 schedule with five consecutive losses, West Virginia made a stunning comeback and rode its late season success into the NCAA Tournament that most observers thought they would never see.
On Sunday night the Mountaineers, who finished at 19-14 in the regular season and the Big 12 Tournament, was awarded the ninth seed in the Southern Region and learned its opponent will be regional rival Maryland, the eighth seed, at the Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday.
Tip-off is 12:15 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live Thursday, March 16 on CBS.
"A lot of people wrote this team off a long time ago, but those people didn't see the transformation in those guys in terms of their wanting to win, them playing together, their looking out more for each other," Huggins said of his team. "I thought they really came together."
The truth is Huggins has always believed in this team, even though it struggled with such basics as free throw shooting, passing and defense.
Much of that, of course, was a result of Huggins having to do a nearly compete rebuilding of his roster and bringing in veteran players from across the country, all of whom had to learn to work together and find their role in his system.
Huggins believed the No. 9 seed was a realistic placement for the team considering all it went through.
"I'm good with it," he said. "Obviously, we wanted to win more games but we had some things happen. We missed some free throws, we had some other games like Oklahoma State where we did a stupid thing at the end of the game," he said, referring to a technical foul that Erik Stevenson drew just as he carried the team back into the game.
"Then, Kansas State we were up about 16 or 18 at halftime. The Texas Tech game we rolled the ball out of bounds for some reason," Huggins went on. "We were a team of winning another five or six games, if we do that, or win even half of them, look where we are."
And this team has progressed to the point where it can be expected to play at a higher level than a No. 9 seed would perform at, especially coming out of the grueling Big 12 season it had to go through.
Maryland finished its Big Ten season with a 21-12 overall record and an 11-9 record in Big Ten play, including a victory over Purdue, a No. 1 seed who beat the Mountaineers early in the year.
The Terrapins are coached by Kevin Willard, with whom WVU fans are familiar as the former head coach of Seton Hall in the Big East days.
A former Pitt point guard, Willard coached at Seton Hall from 2010 to 2022 before moving to Maryland this season.
In the one-year WVU played in the Big East with Willard coaching, he and Huggins split two games.
West Virginia has an all-time record of 24-14 against Maryland and has won the last three meetings and six of the last seven, but the two teams have not played since March 2015 in the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, when Huggins' "Press Virginia" team tormented the Terrapins, 69-59, forcing 23 turnovers and stealing the ball 15 times.
Jevon Carter had seven of the steals and Gary Browne six.
That, of course, was a very different kind of basketball team than Huggins will throw at Maryland this time around.
"As I recall, they struggled with our pressure," Huggins said. " I think we probably shoot the ball better now than that team did. This is a better shooting team but it doesn't have the ability to put on that kind of pressure. I think this team has gotten better and better defensively, much like that other team.
"Press Virginia was hard on everybody ... including the other guys on the floor."
Huggins, of course, meant the officials.
Huggins said his team was excited when its slot was announced on television, but "didn't jump up and down."
One suspects they would have been more animated if the CBS or ESPN cameras had been there.
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Meanwhile, the WVU women will also be going to postseason play. First-year coach Dawn Plitzuweit's team earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Women's Tournament. As the No. 10 seed, the Mountaineers will face No. 7 seed Arizona Friday in College Park, Maryland.
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