By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
NEW YORK —
The path to a Big East championship is not supposed to be easy, especially if you are a .500 team in the land of basketball giants.
But is it supposed to present the kind of problems that West Virginia University faces?
The Mountaineers play their first game in the tournament at noon today in Madison Square Garden, and the opponent is simply the defending national champion Connecticut Huskies, coached by a Hall of Fame coach in Jim Calhoun.
And, should WVU pull off what many would say is an upset, even though the Mountaineers hold the No. 8 seed to UConn’s No. 9, all that awaits them is the team that many believe could replace UConn as national champions — Syracuse, the nation’s No. 2 team.
WVU coach Bob Huggins, of course, has never backed down from any challenge, and this one doesn’t seem to have fazed him any, either.
“If you win it’s a heck of a break,” he said, referring to the draw that some would consider unlucky. “We go win against someone else and it probably drops us (in the RPIs, which would hurt their NCAA seeding). We are playing the two most talented teams the first two rounds.”
Huggins then thought about the term he used to describe the chance to play these two teams right out of the gate.
“I don’t know if it’s a break ... but it’s an opportunity,” he said.
Connecticut has been a strange team, mostly in search of itself this year while Calhoun battled his back problem and swirling controversy that leads to the Huskies being ineligible for the NCAA Tournament next year.
Now with him coming back from the surgery within four days and coaching on the sidelines when no one imagined he would, UConn has an emotional hook.
“Honestly, everyone at this time of year tries to rally around something ... get in the tournament, save your year,” Huggins said.
His team, as has been well documented, struggled badly in the second half of the season and still is regarded as a bubble team — not by Huggins, who maintains the Mountaineers are in the NCAA Tournament — and that should offer plenty of incentive.
One thing is certain. The Huskies are playing well now, having won two in a row including a first-round victory over DePaul on Tuesday, and could be living up to their potential despite a tough season.
“I think everyone said at the beginning of the year they were the most talented team in the country, especially after (Andre) Drummond decided not to go back to prep school,” Huggins said. “(Jeremy) Lamb’s a lottery pick, obviously Drummond is a lottery pick, (Alex) Oriahki is a pro. People are saying now that (Shabazz) Napier’s a pro.”
That makes UConn a tough out, especially as they try to repeat as national champion looking at a year’s probation to come.
Lamb understands things are different this year from last.
“Well, when we go into the tournament obviously it’s a new season. You go into the tournament and try to work hard and then this year, playing without Kemba, all year we’ve been finding ourselves and everybody on the team has been stepping up. We’ve been preparing all year for this time.
“Now it’s here; we just want to give it all we’ve got and don’t look back. We’ll take it a game at a time and just try to get wins.”
Someone noted that last year UConn was in a similar situation, needing to sweep 12 straight to win the title, and that it began with a victory over DePaul, just as it did this year.
“I mean, it’s a coincidence, but this is a whole new year,” said Lamb, who scored 25 points against DePaul on Tuesday. “We didn’t go into it like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ But we were like, ‘We’re playing DePaul? OK, we need a win. Let’s do our thing as a team.’”
The two teams played earlier this season with UConn winning at home, 64-57, with the freshman Drummond going off for 20 points with Lamb pumping in 25.
Kevin Jones had 22 for the Mountaineers and Deniz Kilicli 12, but Truck Bryant was held to 2 for 13 from the field and eight points.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.