MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia will be making its fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance this Thursday afternoon at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla. Tipoff is 12:15 p.m.
But just who the Mountaineers will be playing won’t be known until sometime Tuesday evening. That's because West Virginia is one of four teams to face a first-four game winner in the newly expanded 68-team tournament field, the Mountaineers slated to take on the winner of Tuesday’s Alabama-Birmingham-Clemson matchup being played in Dayton, Ohio.
"This is all new to me because these play-in games have always been for the 16th-seed," said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. "I don't know if it was expanding the field a little bit or upsets in conference tournaments but the so-called play-in game, the seed has risen dramatically.
"It doesn't matter who you play because you've got to play everyone anyway, but it does take a day of preparation away."
UAB is making its first trip to the Big Dance since 2006 and its first under coach Mike Davis, who led the Blazers to a 22-8 record this season before losing to East Carolina in the Conference USA tournament.
Six-five guard Jamarr Sanders is UAB’s top scorer, averaging 17.7 points per game, 6-10 forward Cameron Moore shows averages of 14.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, while 5-8 guard Aaron Jonson is averaging 12 points per game and handing out a team-best 232 assists.
UAB went 12-4 in conference play, including a 64-48 win at Marshall, which defeated the Mountaineers, 75-71, in Charleston back on Jan. 19.
Clemson enters the tournament with a 21-11 record under first-year coach Brad Brownell, who inherited a Tiger program coming off back-to-back NCAA appearances under former coach Oliver Purnell. Brownell has plenty of tournament experience himself, guiding UNC Wilmington and Wright State to three NCAA trips before taking over the Clemson job last spring.
The Tigers went 9-7 in ACC play this season with conference wins over Miami, Georgia Tech, NC State, Florida State, Boston College, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech during the regular season. The Tigers blew out BC, 70-47, in the ACC tournament before falling in overtime to North Carolina, 92-87, in the quarterfinals.
Six-two guard Demontez Stitt leads the Tigers in scoring with an average of 14.7 points per game. Jerai Grant, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward, shows averages of 12.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game while 5-foot-9 guard Andre Young is averaging 10.8 points per game.
Clemson and UAB have very similar scoring averages, the Tigers averaging 68.2 points per game while the Blazers are averaging 68.9 points per game.
"It just seems to me it would be better for everyone to play on Friday - the teams that play and the team that has to prepare," said Huggins. "We're going to have our first really hard practice since the Marquette game and we have really no idea who we're going to play."
West Virginia (20-11) earned a five-seed after posting its seventh consecutive 20-win season and its fourth under Bob Huggins, now 100-41 in four years at his alma mater. Huggins guided West Virginia to its second-ever Final Four appearance last year, and also steered the Mountaineers to the Sweet 16 during his first season with the program in 2008. This is Huggins' 19th NCAA appearance with three different schools.
This year, West Virginia went 11-7 in the Big East (considered the toughest conference in the country) the Mountaineers winning four of their last five regular season games with victories over NCAA tournament participants Notre Dame, Connecticut and Louisville – three of 13 teams the Mountaineers have faced in this year’s tournament.
Casey Mitchell (14.1 ppg.), Kevin Jones (13.1 ppg.) and Truck Bryant (10.9 ppg.) are West Virginia’s three double-digit scorers.
Jones is the team’s top rebounder by averaging 7.4 boards per game, including a team-best 100 offensive rebounds.
Senior John Flowers shows averages of 9.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
West Virginia has met Clemson four times, most recently in 2007 in the NIT championship game when the Mountaineers knocked off the Tigers, 78-73, at Madison Square Garden in New York City to claim their second NIT title. WVU also played Clemson in an NIT game in Morgantown in 1994, the Tigers coming away with a 96-79 triumph.
Senior guard Joe Mazzulla played in the 2007 NIT finals against Clemson, scoring 2 points in seven minutes of action.
West Virginia’s other two meetings against Clemson took place in 1952 when both teams were members of the Southern Conference.
The Mountaineers have played UAB three times, most recently in 1991 in the Cable Car Classic, where the Blazers defeated the Mountaineers 88-84. The two teams also played twice during the 1987-88 seasons, West Virginia beating UAB, 79-64, in Morgantown and losing, 66-62, in Birmingham.
Clemson and UAB have both faced five schools in this year's tournament field - Clemson playing Wofford, Michigan, North Carolina Duke and Florida State while UAB playing Duke, Georgia, Memphis, VCU and Arkansas Little Rock.
"You tried to go into it as prepared as you possibly can and don't get surprised," said Huggins.
The winner of Thursday’s game will face the Kentucky-Princeton winner on Saturday.