The Circus Comes to Town

  • By John Antonik
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  • March 18, 2014 01:34 PM
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West Virginia coach Bob Huggins is hopeful this year's NIT berth can be used as a springboard into 2015. 
Big 12 Conference photo
If you are wondering what kind of circus would cause West Virginia to play tonight’s NIT game at Georgetown’s tiny, 2,500-seat McDonough Arena instead of the 18,000-seat Verizon Center, well, it’s the real one.
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is putting on shows this week at the Verizon Center, making the facility unavailable for tonight’s Big 12-Big East matchup that is being televised on ESPN.
That means the large number of Mountaineer fans in the Capital region will likely have to watch this one from their living rooms.
“I would imagine it will be wild,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins of tonight’s atmosphere in a high school-sized gymnasium.
When West Virginia and Georgetown began preparing for the season, way back in September and October, the NIT obviously was not the planned destination for both programs.
Bob Huggins-coached teams have made 20 trips to the NCAA tournament - five of those coming while he’s been at West Virginia. And Georgetown’s John Thompson III has led the Hoyas to NCAA trips in seven out of his last nine seasons there.
So tonight’s winner is more a matter of which team wants to continue playing basketball rather than which team is better than the other.
West Virginia, with no seniors on this year’s roster, is taking the approach of using this year’s NIT appearance as a springboard into 2015.
“We want to win and end the season on a positive note,” said Huggins.
Back in 2007, when John Beilein was still coaching the Mountaineers, West Virginia was able to shake off the disappointment of not reaching the NCAA tournament to win an NIT championship. The following season, under first-year coach Bob Huggins, West Virginia reached the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 where it narrowly lost to Xavier.
Huggins coached consecutive NIT teams at Cincinnati in 1990 and 1991 before getting the Bearcats on a roll with a trip to the Final Four in 1992. However, Huggins says this year’s situation is much different than the one he had at Cincinnati two decades ago.
“We had two guys who came back from those NIT teams, Herb Jones and Alan Jackson,” said Huggins. “The rest of those guys were all first-year guys.”
Still, Huggins sees plenty of benefits to having an extended season.
“Any time you get more practice with your guys and you get more game experience, I think it’s going to help,” he said.
I noticed in the Washington Post advance of tonight’s game a reference to Georgetown playing a “tougher schedule” than West Virginia:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/colleges/georgetown-west-virginia-nit-preview-the-guys-still-want-to-play-more-basketball-games/2014/03/17/4ce7f5fe-ae2a-11e3-9627-c65021d6d572_story.html.
West Virginia played 17 games this year against RPI Top 50 teams and eight games against RPI Top 25 teams. Georgetown had 15 games against the RPI Top 50 and seven against the RPI Top 25 playing in the nation’s No. 3-rated basketball conference.
The Big 12, meanwhile, was the No. 1-rated basketball league in America this year. Evidently the folks over in D.C. only get Big East and ACC games on their TV sets.
Any time there is a selection process involved in picking a tournament field, there is invariably a fair amount of complaining that goes on. The Sunday evening after the NCAA men’s basketball tournament field is revealed is usually the time when Dick Vitale gets on his soapbox to take up for his coaching buddies.
Well, it also happens on the women’s side, too.
This year, the first question NCAA women’s selection committee chair Carolayne Henry had to answer was why West Virginia received a No. 2 seed over third-seeded Louisville.
The Cardinals had a fantastic year in the newly formed American Athletic Conference, going 30-4 with three of its losses coming to top-ranked Connecticut. The West Virginia women, meanwhile, went 29-4 with two of its four losses coming to Big 12 tournament champion Baylor, also a No. 2 seed.
Henry was asked if Louisville being dropped down to a three-seed showed a lack of respect for the American Conference.
“Well, in terms of respect or not, we don’t judge conferences, we judge the teams and how they play,” she said. “When we were looking at Louisville versus West Virginia a couple of things stood out. One, Louisville played six games in the top 50 with only two wins, and West Virginia had seven wins alone in the top 50. That was one of the distinguishing factors.
“The other thing with West Virginia, they’re the Big 12 regular season co-champs. Those two things, along with numerous times watching those teams, the committee gave the nod to West Virginia.”
On the flip side, the Mountaineers have a legitimate gripe with the potential of playing tournament games on the home floors of lower-seeded LSU and Louisville, should they advance.
“In order to protect our one seeds in the first and second-round games so they don’t have to play on a lower seeded team’s court, we placed South Carolina in Seattle and Notre Dame in Toledo,” said Henry. “In doing that, in protecting those one seeds, we could not protect the number two seeds.
“(Duke and Baylor are host schools and) that left Stanford and West Virginia having to play on a lower seeded team’s court. Unfortunately, the way that our procedures are and our principles, we cannot avoid that,” she said.
West Virginia will play 15-seed Albany on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. with the possibility of facing seventh-seeded LSU on its home floor in the second round. After that, a meeting against Louisville on its home floor in Louisville could also happen in the round of 16.
At some point veteran Mike Carey is going to catch a break in postseason play, unfortunately, it’s not going to be this year, though.
If you have some free time on Saturday, you ought to head on over to the Coliseum and check out the 2014 Big 12 gymnastics championships. It is the first-ever Big 12 championship event taking place in Morgantown. The meet begins at 4 p.m. and features league favorite Oklahoma, ranked third in the country this week. Tickets are priced at $5 for adults, $3 for youths and groups of 10 or more are priced at $2 per person. Additionally, tickets are free for all Big 12 Conference students with a valid student I.D. You can log on to WVUGAME.com to get your tickets in advance.
The real spring football work for the Mountaineers begins today with the start of full-contact drills. One thing that bears repeating with this year’s team: West Virginia has just 10 returning seniors on offense and only seven returning seniors on defense.
That means there are 41 freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores on this year’s spring football roster. Throw in 15 newcomers arriving sometime this summer and you are still taking about an awful, awful young football program.
There are 24 players in this year’s junior class, meaning 2014 will be the third-straight year that Coach Dana Holgorsen has had a smaller-than-usual senior class to work with.
That will obviously change in 2015 if all of the juniors stick around.
Speaking of Holgorsen, the coach has always preferred running a fast-paced offense. The quicker the better, he believes. But last year, there were times when Holgorsen had to slow things down to help out his young team.
New defensive coordinator Tony Gibson explains.
“I thought Dana did a great job last year of knowing we many not be able to score 50 points, or we are not going to be able to stop people on every series, so let’s slow the game down and try and limit possessions,” he said. “Early in the year when we were healthy (on defense) we were in games.
“Now, were we world beaters? No. But we were getting better and then we started to get guys banged up,” Gibson noted. “The better we get on offense and the better we get on defense we’re going to be able to go faster. We’ve got no issues with that.”
In some respects, having an offense that is scoring lots of points – no matter how quickly it scores – can actually make things easier for the defense.
“Score points and keep them on their heels,” said Gibson. “Regardless of whether he’s (playing fast) or not, the other team is going to do it in this league. I think it fits and it doesn’t bother me at all. In practice, I want (the offense) to go as fast as it can with us.”
And finally, since the stuff that goes out on our websites and social media pages generally falls under my domain, some of the guys in the athletic department jokingly say that I possess the keys to the Internet.
Well, this guy actually does have the keys to the Internet: http://time.com/27682/key-to-internet-pail-klane-british/
If they are having trouble getting on, they can blame him, not me!
Enjoy your week!