TAMPA – West Virginia coach Bob Huggins believes his team’s margin for error is much smaller than last year’s team as the Mountaineers continue to prepare for Thursday’s NCAA tournament game against either UAB or Clemson on Thursday afternoon at the St. Pete Times Forum.
“We have to do a lot more things right,” said Huggins Tuesday afternoon.
During last season’s Final Four run, there were games when the Mountaineers were good enough to overcome long scoreless spells. This year’s team can’t do that.
“A year ago when we scored 14 points or whatever it was in the first half against Villanova and we still had enough firepower, so to speak,” said Huggins. “I’m not sure we can do that this year.”
West Virginia had an All-American in Da’Sean Butler and an NBA player in Devin Ebanks to turn to when things were going bad. The Mountaineers also had deceptive size that teams often didn’t appreciate until after the game.
“As you advance in the tournament you’re playing against better and better players, you’re playing against better teams, and by and large they’ve had more time to scout you; they know your tendencies a little bit better,” said Huggins. “I think with last year’s team, what nobody could simulate and what really helped us is we shocked people with our length.
“That was a great advantage,” he continued. “People talked about it but you just couldn’t understand really how long we were until you actually start playing the game. That’s what everybody talked about after the basketball game – ‘their length, their length.’ We don’t have anything like that to hang our hat on.”
In the games West Virginia (20-11) has struggled this year, long scoring droughts have often been the primary culprit. It was a long second-half scoreless spell that led to West Virginia’s 67-61 loss to Marquette in last week’s Big East tournament. Huggins said his team can’t afford to do that on Thursday if it expects to advance.
“The problem with the Marquette game is we threw them the ball,” Huggins explained. “We weren’t scoring, but they weren’t scoring either. Then we had a couple guys try and put on a dribbling exhibition, they’d lose the ball and then (Marquette) went down and scored because of our bad offense and our bad decisions.”
On the plus side, the Mountaineers will be one of the most prepared teams entering the tournament after facing one of the toughest schedules in the country. West Virginia has already played 13 teams in this year’s NCAA tournament – Thursday’s foes Clemson and UAB have played just five NCAA teams each during the regular season.
“I just told them today that there isn’t any reason why we can’t go and win,” Huggins said. “When you think about some of the people that we’ve beaten and some of the players that we’ve played against … we are not going to play anybody better than (Connecticut guard Kemba) Walker. To me he’s the best player in the country. We are not going to play against guards who are better than (Notre Dame guard Ben) Hansbrough. We’re going to play against some who are probably as good, but we’re not going to play against anybody who is better.”
Huggins believes Thursday’s game could come down to a simple matter of how efficiently West Virginia performs on offense.
“It doesn’t matter what offense you run or who the coach is, if you have open shots and the players don’t make them it’s just not very good offense,” Huggins said.
The team arrived in Tampa earlier this evening in time to take in the Clemson-UAB game at the team hotel. West Virginia will have a two-hour closed practice Wednesday afternoon before a 40-minute shooting session at St. Pete Times Forum at 5:10 p.m. that is open to the public. NOTES
- Huggins was asked Tuesday why senior guard Joe Mazzulla has performed so well in big NCAA tournament games, specifically in 2008 against Duke and last year against Kentucky.
“The Duke game we felt like he could drive the ball and we told him that,” Huggins said. “They were playing some younger guards and he could drive the ball after we moved people and got them spread. I think the Kentucky game his confidence was starting to grow the way he played in the Big East tournament.”
Huggins pointed out that Mazzulla was unable to shoot free throws with his left hand until the final game or two of the regular season last year.
“He had not made one free throw prior to the Louisville game,” Huggins said. “I told Joe it was a tremendous advantage because they don’t think you’re going to make any and he’d been shooting the ball well in practice. I said when you’re open jump up and shoot it in.”
- Huggins said senior guard Casey Mitchell has practiced well the past two days. Mitchell has been erratic at times this year, going on scoring binges as he did early this season in Puerto Rico when he scored 31 in a win against Vanderbilt and 27 in a loss to Minnesota, and then hitting stretches when he failed to score double digits in games against Robert Morris, Duquesne, Purdue, Villanova, Pitt, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Connecticut and Marquette.
Mitchell leads the team in scoring with an average of 14.1 points per game.
“I think Casey needs to play well for us to play well,” said Huggins. “He’s had two of his best days of practice since probably early in the season.
“I thought he was very good today.”
- Thursday will be Huggins’ 19th NCAA tournament appearance with three different schools, including four straight trips at West Virginia. The four consecutive NCAA appearances are the second-most in school history; Fred Schaus led WVU to six straight NCAA appearances from 1955-60.
Huggins is 26-19 all-time in NCAA tournament games including two trips to the Final Four in 1992 and 2010.