WVU hopes to ride late-season victories into postseason play
Published: Sunday, March 6, 2011
Updated: Sunday, March 6, 2011 22:03
Bob Huggins doesn't enjoy reflecting.
Ask the West Virginia head men's basketball coach about the past, and he'll say what he tells everybody: He doesn't believe in rearview mirrors.
But if the day comes when Huggins finally does look back, the run his Mountaineers have strung together in their final three games of the regular season will be an accomplishment to remember.
West Virginia was in 11th place in the Big East Conference after being embarrassed by No. 6 Pittsburgh on Feb. 24.
But the Mountaineers swept their final three games of the regular season, including two over top-20 opponents, to finish sixth in the Big East and earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
"Looking at that schedule beforehand, you say ‘oh crap, how are we going to pull this off?'" said WVU senior point guard Joe Mazzulla. "But we took it one practice and one game at a time. We took care of business.
"There was no better way to go out."
With their NCAA Tournament bid on the line, the Mountaineers beat No. 16 Connecticut and No. 11 Louisville in back-to-back games to end the regular season after topping Rutgers on the road.
WVU won three of its last four games against ranked opponents, including a 72-58 victory over No. 7 Notre Dame, the runner-up in the Big East regular season standings.
West Virginia finished with its seventh straight 20-win season, including a 5-5 mark against ranked teams, although the team finished with the second toughest schedule in the country.
WVU also had a chance to beat Louisville on the road on Jan. 26, but was beaten on a shot at the buzzer to fall 55-54.
The team was projected to finish ninth in the preseason coaches poll after losing seniors Da'Sean Butler and Wellington Smith to graduation, and Devin Ebanks to the NBA.
"We've played the best schedule in the history of the school," Huggins said. "There isn't any question. It's not even close."
The team's success this season hasn't been automatic, however. After losing the entire freshman class to either injuries or academics, then having backup center Dan Jennings quit the team midway through the year, Huggins was forced to trim his bench to seven regular players.
The Mountaineers began the Big East season 0-2 with disappointing losses to St. John's and Marquette and even fell to Marshall.
That, however, was the old WVU.
"You want to be clicking the whole season," said WVU forward Kevin Jones. "But I'm glad we're clicking now. There's no better time than now."
The Mountaineers won their last six games of the regular season last year, carried that momentum into New York City and claimed the school's first Big East Championship. WVU then went on to the Final Four before falling to eventual national champion Duke.
The team said its similar ending to the season should help propel it into the postseason once again, starting with its second-round Big East Tournament game against the winner of Monday's Marquette/Providence matchup.
"Our confidence is very high, but it's not over the top," Jones said. "We won some big games, but we can't let it get out of perspective.
"We still have a long, long season left if we want to make it where we made it last year."