It’s been long awaited and much anticipated, but March Madness is finally here. And, for the first time since 2012, West Virginia is a part of it.
The Mountaineers, who landed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed, will face No. 12 Buffalo Friday.
The Bulls finished with a 23-9 record, going 12-6 in the MAC Conference. Unlike many other smaller schools from less reputable conferences that didn’t make the tournament, Buffalo faced a couple top-notch teams in non-conference play, including two No.1-seed teams—Kentucky and Wisconsin.
They fell in both bouts, but not easily. They pushed Kentucky, who has been the No. 1 team in the league since the commencement of the 2014-15 season, leading the Wildcats, 38-33, at the end of the first half. But, they ended up losing by 19 points after only posting 14 in the second half.
The story was similar against Wisconsin, leading at halftime but ultimately losing by double digits.
What we can take from the Bulls’ season, particularly these two games, is that the Bulls can keep up with anyone. Leading teams like Kentucky and Wisconsin after 20 minutes of play is impressive, no matter the final score. Of any No. 12 seed for West Virginia to be matched up against, Buffalo could be the toughest.
Perhaps S.F. Austin, Wyoming or Wofford would have been a more likable matchups for West Virginia, but there is no doubting the result of what head coach Bob Huggins, the Big 12 Coach of the Year, has done with the program.
The Mountaineers had an unexpectedly successful season, going 23-8, and 11-7 in the Big 12 Conference — the best since 2010 when they made a Final Four run in which they ultimately lost to Duke.
Unlike many Big 12 opponents that had time to see West Virginia play and find a way to counter its unusual defense, Buffalo isn’t going to have the same opportunity to observe and prepare as the Mountaineers’ previous opponents did.
“Press Virginia” became the name West Virginia responded to, as Huggins incorporated a full-court press style defense into his game-to-game strategy to give his team more possessions as a way to overcome its less-than-stellar shooting abilities.
The press was effective and it grabbed the nation’s attention, as the Mountaineers led the NCAA in steals per game, averaging 10.9.
They only shot 41.2 percent from the field on the season, finishing 282nd among Division I teams. But, the press made them a contender in the best of 32 conferences.
They fell to Baylor in their first game of the Big 12 Tournament, playing without senior guards Juwan Staten and Gary Browne—both suffered injuries two weeks prior to the loss, and haven’t seen the court since.
Luckily for the Mountaineers, depth at the guard positions kept them within reach during the tournament loss, as they were only down by two points at halftime, and only lost by 10 at the horn by a score of 80-70—the closest loss to Baylor this season.
In one of only a few games Huggins didn’t issue the press on West Virginia’s opponent, he claimed the change in defense was a decision made as a result of his limited roster.
With a healthy roster that includes Staten and Browne, West Virginia is ready for the NCAA Tournament and could prove to be the ultimate wildcard.