BUFFALO - West Virginia is back in the Empire State and looking to stick around a little bit longer than it did a year ago when the third-seeded Mountaineers saw their trip to the NCAA Tournament quickly go up in flames in Brooklyn, New York, against 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin.
Some were predicting a 2016 Final Four run for the Mountaineers before reality hit midway through the first half in the form of Stephen F. Austin guard Thomas Walkup, who scored a game-high 33 points, including 19 from the free throw line.
The Mountaineers’ 14-point loss to the underdog Lumberjacks was one of the more disappointing performances in WVU’s 62-year NCAA Tournament history.
“I was very honest about the fact that I didn’t think our practices were very good leading into the game a year ago. I think we kind of took Stephen F. Austin for granted,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said during Wednesday’s visit with the media at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York. “They were a really good team and that was a terrible mistake. This year we’ve been much, much better but to a large degree having so many of those guys back who went through that experience a year ago helps.”
To avoid a repeat performance this year against 13th-seeded Bucknell, West Virginia is going to have to get back to playing the way it played earlier this year when it knocked off Virginia in Charlottesville, top-ranked Baylor, 89-68, in Morgantown and second-ranked Kansas, 85-69, also in Morgantown.
“We’ve got to get back to dictating how the game is played,” Huggins admitted earlier this week. “We’ve kind of let other people dictate style and pace. We can’t do that. We’ve got to play the way we play.”
Despite advancing to the Big 12 Tournament championship game last weekend, West Virginia (26-8) didn’t play particularly well out in Kansas City.
The Mountaineers endured a long scoreless stretch at the end of their quarterfinal-round win against Texas, and then in the semifinals versus Kansas State, they led for only 1:29 of the game in a 51-50, come-from-behind victory. West Virginia needed an Esa Ahmad
free throw with 19 seconds left and then had to protect a one-point lead to reach the championship game against Iowa State.
In the finals, West Virginia couldn’t slow down point guard Monte Morris and forward Deonte Burton, who combined to score 33 of Iowa State’s 80 points in a six-point Cyclone victory.
The Mountaineers shot the ball much better against Iowa State (51.8 percent), but they also allowed Iowa State to shoot 54.2 percent from the floor and win most of the hustle statistics, specifically rebounding and second-chance points.
Bucknell (26-8) is not in Iowa State’s category athletically, but it is a dangerous team nonetheless because, just like Iowa State, it can shoot the basketball.
The Bison rank 25th nationally in team field goal shooting at 48 percent, led by Patriot League Player of the Year Nana Foulland, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound junior center from Reading, Pennsylvania, who is shooting an impressive 62.8 percent from the floor.
Bucknell’s leading scorer is 6-foot-7, 228-pound junior forward Zach Thomas, whose 16 points-per-game average includes a career-high, 27 points against Holy Cross earlier this season.
The 3-point shot can be Bucknell’s equalizer, particularly in transition if the Bison can handle West Virginia’s pressure. Bucknell is shooting 37.7 percent from 3 and has made 10 or more 3s in a game eight times this season. Bucknell hit a season-high 17 triples in a 94-64 victory over Lafayette on February 22.
“It’s about getting good ones,” Bucknell coach Nathan Davis said. “We don’t want to chuck them up just to chuck them up. We want to make sure we’re getting them inside-out and our feet are set. We have guys that are capable of making shots from a lot of different areas. As long as they’re good ones.”
Despite producing a 90-24 record in Patriot League play over the last seven seasons, Bucknell was picked to finish third in this year’s preseason media poll behind Lehigh and Boston University.
Perhaps the turning point in Bucknell’s season came in Boston on February 19 when it routed the Terriers, 86-66, to open up a two-game lead in the conference race.
Bucknell then cruised through the Patriot League Tournament to secure its seventh NCAA Tournament appearance, and its first under Davis, a Randolph-Macon graduate who produced a 141-39 record in six seasons there before taking his current job in 2016.
Davis was an assistant on Pat Flannery’s Bison staff when Bucknell upset ninth-ranked Kansas in the first round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament, and he was also around in 2006 when Bucknell edged Arkansas in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
Bucknell has a reputation for knocking off Power 5 conference opponents dating back to 2005, when it topped seventh-ranked Pitt during the regular season and then upset Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.
Other significant victories have come against Syracuse during the 2005-06 season, against Arkansas in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, against Arizona in the 2012 NIT, against Purdue during the 2012-13 season, and, most recently, against Vanderbilt earlier this year.
Therefore, West Virginia is going to have to bring its “A” game for Thursday afternoon’s opening-round matchup against Bucknell.
Tipoff is slated for approximately 2:45 p.m. following the Notre Dame-Princeton game. The contest will be televised on CBS.
The Mountaineer Sports Network from IMG’s radio coverage on stations throughout West Virginia begins at 2 p.m.