Their mascot is the “Mountaineer,” and the basketball program is a member of the 16-team Big East Conference, where they have been employed since 1996. Prior to their good standing with the Big East, the Mountaineers called the following conferences home: the Atlantic-10 (1983-1995), the Eastern 8 (1978-1982), the Eastern Continental Basketball League (1977), the Southern (1951-1968), and the Eastern Intercollegiate Conference (1933-1939). From 1904-1932, 1940-1950, and 1969-1976, West Virginia was not affiliated with any one conference.
West Virginia has an illustrious history in NCAA Tournament play. Dating back to 1955, the Mountaineers have made the NCAA Tournament 23 times. Their best finish came in 1959, when a team led by future NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West made the NCAA Championship game and lost to the University of California. No other West Virginia team has ever made the Final Four, and only one squad — the 2005 edition, led by head coach John Beilein — has advanced beyond the Sweet 16.
Notable alumni of the West Virginia basketball program include the aforementioned West; current New Jersey Nets general manager Rod Thorn — who interestingly enough is a University of Washington graduate (he earned a degree in political science as an assistant coach with the Sonics in the early 1970s); former No. 1 overall pick (in the 1957 NBA Draft, by the Minneapolis Lakers) and fabled broadcaster Rod Hundley; former NBDL player and infamously-surnamed Kevin Pittsnogle; and current Chicago Bull forward Joe Alexander.
This year’s Mountaineers are coached by the legendary Bob Huggins. At 56 years of age, Huggins is one of only four active Division I coaches with at least 600 wins. He took over the West Virginia program in 2007 after stops at Kansas State (2006); Cincinnati (1989-2005); Akron (1984-1989); and Walsh University, of the NAIA (1980-1983).
Despite his winning pedigree, Huggins has not been without controversy. In 2004, he was arrested for DUI while the coach of Cincinnati. He ultimately pled no contest to the charge, but could not save his job a year later. His brief incarceration, plus a reputation as a coach who did not graduate his players, were enough to force him out at Cincinnati, where he had established one of the winningest programs in the nation.
After spending one season away from the game, Huggins took the head coaching position at Kansas State University, where he pulled in two remarkable recruiting classes and led his team to the NIT. Controversy struck again, however, when Huggins departed his new school just one year into his tenure. A former West Virginia player and assistant coach, Huggins jumped ship to become head coach at his alma mater, leaving many folks at Kansas State upset with his untimely exit.
Since Huggins has taken over the West Virginia program, he has led the Mountaineers to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. In 2008, his first-year club reached the Sweet 16 before falling to three-seed Xavier. In 2009, as the six-seed, West Virginia was upset by 11th-seeded Dayton in the tournament’s first round. So far this season, the Mountaineers have knocked off 15th-seeded Morgan State and 10th-seeded Missouri in the first two rounds of the Big Dance.
West Virginia finished the regular season as the second-place team in the Big East. They compiled a 13-5 conference record, 29-6 overall, and went on to win the Big East Tournament by knocking off Georgetown in the tourney championship. West Virginia has two notable out-of-conference wins to their credit. They defeated Texas A&M in November, and outlasted Ohio State in January. Five of their six losses on the year were to NCAA Tournament-bound teams (Purdue, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Villanova, and Pittsburgh; the sixth loss came at the hands of Connecticut, who made it to the NIT).
The Mountaineers are unquestionably led by senior forward Da’Sean Butler. The 6’7″ swingman averages 17.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game for West Virginia. A poor-man’s Quincy Pondexter (yep, I said it), Butler knocks down 42.5% of his shots from the field, 35.3% of his three-pointers, and 78.1% of his free throws. He has averaged double figures scoring in all four years of his collegiate career.
Behind Butler are two talented sophomores who help comprise West Virginia’s three-headed monster at the forward position. A veritable thunder-and-lightning combo, Kevin Jones stands 6’8″ tall and weighs in at roughly 250 pounds, while Devin Ebanks is a lithe 6’9″, 215.
Jones is the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.6 points per game. With his burly frame, he’s able to haul in 7.2 rebounds per game, as well. Perhaps most impressively, the power forward knocks down the trey at a rate of 38.5%, remarkable numbers for a man his size. He has failed to reach double figures scoring on only five occasions this year, and he shoots a respectable 52.5% from the field.
When it comes to scoring, Ebanks is no slouch, himself. He averages an even 12 points, to go along 8.3 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game. Unlike his teammate Jones, Ebanks isn’t much of a three-point shooter, however. On the season, the Long Island native has attempted 29 threes, connecting on just three of them (10.3%). He atones for his long-range deficiencies by knocking down 75.2% of his free throws and 45.1% of his field goals, while providing rangy defense with his size and relative quickness.
The team’s fourth-leading scorer is point guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant, who, as we mentioned yesterday, will miss the remainder of the season with a broken foot.
The rest of the supporting cast includes 6’7″ senior forward Wellington Smith (6.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.0 blocks per game; 46.5% FG, 36.5% 3pt), 6’9″ freshman forward Deniz Kilicli (3.5 points, 0.8 rebounds per game; 50% FG), 6’4″ junior shooting guard Casey Mitchell (3.8 points, 1.0 rebounds per game; 82.4% FT), 6’5″ freshman shooting guard Dalton Pepper (3.3 points, 0.6 assists per game; 72.7% FT, 33.9% 3pt), 6’7″ junior forward John Flowers (2.9 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists per game; only 48.8% FT), and 6’2″ junior point guard Joe Mazzulla (2.2 points, 2.3 assists, and 1.8 rebounds per game; 2.36 assist-to-turnover ratio).
Of the aforementioned list, Mazzulla is the reserve with the spotlight on him entering Thursday’s ballgame. The team’s backup point guard, Mazzulla will replace the injured Bryant in the starting lineup. A tough defender, the Rhode Island native will have a tall task in being asked to cover and get by the likes of Washington’s smaller, quicker guards.
Additionally, Mazzulla, who averages just under 15 minutes per game, will be asked to log major playing time by his head coach. Of the team’s reserve guards, he is the only true ball-handler amongst the backups.
If Washington is to conquer their foes from the East and advance to the Elite Eight for the first time under coach Lorenzo Romar, they will need to stop West Virginia’s seemingly endless stream of frontcourt players. Between Butler, Jones, and Ebanks, the Mountaineers possess three big bodies that can clog the interior and extend defenses at the same time. Bench players like Kilicli and Flowers do nothing to ease the burden on opponents’ big men, and a bevy of taller guards creates matchup problems for many teams.
The Huskies will need to continue to push the ball in transition and keep getting baskets on the break if they want to hang with the Mountaineers. In half-court offensive sets, Washington could be made vulnerable to West Virginia’s imposing size. At nearly every position, the Mountaineers will have a height advantage that could slow the Huskies down and make shot opportunities a challenge.
Point guard play will be key, as the tandem of Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton should be able to disrupt West Virginia’s ball handlers on defense, and out-run them on offense. It will start with the quickness of these two in getting the Huskies going.
Matthew Bryan-Amaning will again be asked to provide a huge lift on both ends of the floor. Having to contend with all of West Virginia’s forwards could present a bit of a quandary for Washington’s only reliable interior player. Bryan-Amaning will have to sacrifice the occasional Mountaineer basket to avoid foul trouble, and he’ll need to work extra hard on offense to contend with West Virginia’s length.
Darnell Gant has stepped up in Washington’s first two tournament games, logging 11 minutes in each contest, and he’ll need to do it again on Thursday. The lanky 6’8″ power forward has provided a big lift on the defensive end of the floor, while taking away minutes from Tyreese Breshers, who has struggled to keep up with quicker opponents. Gant will be asked to provide his usual dose of defense and rebounding once again versus West Virginia.
Finally, it will be up to Elston Turner to continue to provide a complementary boost on offense. Turner has emerged as a legitimate scoring threat alongside the likes of Isaiah Thomas, Quincy Pondexter, and Matthew Bryan-Amaning. He is averaging 12 points and 2.5 rebounds per game thus far in the tournament, while shooting the three at a 60% clip (6-10) and knocking down field goals at 57.1% (8-14). If Turner can keep pulling the trigger and connecting on big shots, he will help open up the lane for dribble penetration and mid-range jumpshots. Amongst the entire roster, Turner is truly the X-factor at this point in the season.
No, it will not be easy. But with the loss of West Virginia’s starting point guard, as well as the ability to match up with the Mountaineers fairly well, the Huskies have a fighting chance to break their Sweet 16 curse and advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1953.