By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The NCAA Tournament has long been known for making strange bedfellows, considering the matchups that crop up on a yearly basis of schools that have nothing in common short of nets on their baskets and books in their libraries ... even if some of those schools have nothing but coloring books in their schools.
But this year the NCAA has totally outdone itself, at least in a geographical sense, in taking West Virginia and sending them off into the lion’s den for its first game of the tournament.
In any sense of the word, the Mountaineers would be considered the home team in the matchup that has been created between themselves and their No. 10 seed and Gonzaga, a team that must travel from its home in Spokane, Wash., 2,232 miles east to face a Mountaineer team that will be playing just 80 miles from its home floor at the Coliseum.
The irony of this is that West Virginia will be playing Gonzaga in Pittsburgh.
Inviting West Virginia to play in an NCAA Tournament to which Pitt was not invited is like inviting Aaron Burr over to Alexander Hamilton’s house for Sunday brunch or Denise Richards and Charlie Sheen for a week’s vacation on a deserted tropical isle.
There is a very good chance that local gentry be welcoming the Mountaineer faithful who make the journey with open arms and stores filled with blue and gold memorabilia.
But then again, they do refer to this event as March Madness, do they not?
The question was put forth to one Robert Huggins if he was not delighted by the geographical blessing bestowed upon his team, having it close enough that family, friends and fans can make the journey without any more than a parking fee, needing to pay for neither a hotel room nor a meal more expensive or exotic than a Primanti Brothers sandwich in the Strip District.
“What makes you think I’m happy?” Huggins answered, staring down the questioner with a look normally reserved for Deniz Kilicli. “You are not going to get the ticket requests I am going to get.”
Indeed, it wasn’t 10 minutes later that Huggins, walking through the hallways of the Waterplace Hotel, where he and his team had gathered to watch the selection show, was seen informing two brash young men that he had a lot of relatives, more friends, all of whom were in front of these two acquaintances on the ticket request list.
That West Virginia does get to play this game at Pittsburgh’s Consol Center, however, is a good thing, for it will allow them to have a far more sizeable and friendly throng than they might have in Albuquerque, N.M., for example.
Still, Pitt is Pitt.
“It’s crazy,” Kevin Jones, the senior focal point of the West Virginia team, admitted. “It’s not normally a place we want to go to. But it could be an advantage for us.”
And considering the way West Virginia struggled just to finish 19-13 and get a No. 10 seed, which is nothing to be proud of unless you happen to be Pitt, any advantage is a welcome one.
“We need all the help we can get, so I hope it helps,” Huggins said. “Hopefully (the fans) are on the phone now trying to get tickets because we are only going to get our allotment. Hopefully they find ways to get there, because I know they did when we played in Washington, D.C.”
This has been a wacky West Virginia team all season, one heavy with freshmen, which isn’t considered a blessing unless they carry a nickname like the Fab Five. They have displayed great talent at times and at other times are just as likely to cause fans to head for the exits early.
“We could beat anyone in the nation,” senior guard Truck Bryant said, but in the next breath was admitting, “We could lose to anyone, too.”
Such is the schizophrenia that has affected this group.
But now they have lost their margin for error.
The NCAAs are one of the greatest tournaments in America because of the finality of it all.
This is not best four of seven like the World Series or the NBA Finals.
It is one and done, just as it is with the NFL playoffs, and that magnifies not only the greatest moments but also the lowest. And as it is in the NFL on its road to the Super Bowl, each game gets increasingly more difficult.
And it is Ohio State that awaits beyond Gonzaga, as proof of that.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.