After a two-year hiatus, the Mountaineers are dancing again.
West Virginia (23-9, 11-7 Big 12) learned Sunday evening that it will be a No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament, taking on 12th-seeded Buffalo (23-9, 12-6 MAC) to open the tournament Friday in Columbus, Ohio.
Tip-off will be 2:10 p.m. and TNT will televise.
The Bulls, coached by former Duke star Bobby Hurley, have won eight straight games, including a run to the MAC championship last week. They’re led by 6-foot-7 junior forward Justin Moss, who’s averaging 17.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. They’ll be making their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in just Hurley’s second season as head coach.
“I’m just glad he’s not the point guard,” joked WVU head coach Bob Huggins of facing Hurley, who helped lead the Blue Devils to a pair of national championships before being selected No. 7 overall in the 1993 NBA Draft.
Buffalo doesn’t have any major wins outside of the MAC — it’s 0-2 against the RPI Top 50 and 4-5 against the Top 100 — and its best win came against RPI No. 75 Central Michigan in the MAC championship game, after losing a pair to CMU during the regular season. But it did hang with both Kentucky and Wisconsin early on, falling by 19 to UK and 12 to Wisconsin.
“I watched a little bit the other night when they were playing Akron, but I really wasn’t paying attention, just kind of watching because it was Akron,” said Huggins, a former Akron coach, of his next opponent. “They’re outrebounding their opposition. They’re a good free throw shooting team.”
WVU will be trying to overcome its own recent history. The Mountaineers have lost seven straight postseason games, including NCAA, Big 12 and NIT tournament games. WVU’s last postseason victory was an 84-76 win over Clemson in the opening game of the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Overall, the Mountaineers are an even 25-25 in “The Big Dance” in 26 NCAA Tournament appearances. The matchup with Buffalo will mark the first postseason appearance for senior point guard Juwan Staten, a first-team All-Big 12 selection, who averaged 14.5 points per game this season, and he’ll get to make his debut close to his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
“The journey has definitely been worth it,” said Staten, who transferred from Dayton to WVU to play his final three seasons. “Whether it’s been good or bad — and it’s been a little of both — you can always take something away from it and learn from it. I feel it’s definitely been worth it, because I’m in a great position now.”
Staten has missed four straight games because of injury, but he said after WVU’s loss to Baylor in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament that he will play in the NCAA Tournament. An extra day — playing on Friday instead of Thursday — could help.
“I think it’s helpful, from a selfish standpoint, to get another day of conditioning and another day to get some shots up,” he said. “I was kind of looking forward to playing a Friday game.”
Fellow senior guard Gary Browne, who has also been out since Feb. 28 with an ankle injury, should also be back for the tournament game.
“This is what you work for,” said Browne, a native of Puerto Rico. “This is something you will never forget.”
Behind Staten, sophomore forward Devin Williams leads WVU with 11.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Jaysean Paige, Daxter Miles Jr. and Jevon Carter have stepped up in the absence of Browne and Staten, and Huggins is excited to see how his team will function back at full strength.
“These guys have been pretty resilient when you think about all of the things that have happened this year,” said the Mountaineer coach. “Generally, young guys have a tendency to fall apart whenever you lose your leaders, but they’ve been great.”
Huggins, who spent much of his life as a player and coach in Ohio, has plenty of connections to the state, and he said playing just 200 miles from Morgantown will be a positive for the WVU faithful. He’ll be making his 21st NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 seasons as a Division I head coach.
The winner of the WVU-Buffalo game will face the winner between fourth-seeded Maryland and No. 13 Valparaiso in Sunday’s second round.
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