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Why this March can be different than years past for WVU

As the West Virginia Mountaineers enter the 2021 NCAA Tournament this Friday, they will try to become the first West Virginia team to make it past the Sweet Sixteen since 2010 and they should have a good chance at doing just that. 

Since the 2007-2008 season, when head coach Bob Huggins first became the head man at West Virginia, the Mountaineers have made it to the NCAA Tournament nine times and this year will be his 10th trip with the Mountaineers.

This team however, will look to be the first team since 2010 to make it past the Sweet Sixteen.

In 2008, the Mountaineers entered the tournament as a No. 7 seed in the East Region. The Mountaineers defeated No. 10 seed Arizona in the first round and then upset No. 2 Duke in the second round. West Virginia ultimately lost to No. 3 seed Xavier in the Sweet Sixteen 79-75. 

In 2009, the Mountaineers entered the tournament as a No. 6 seed, but lost to Dayton in the first round 68-60.

2010 is probably one of the most memorable teams in recent history for West Virginia fans. A team led by Da’Sean Butler, was able to go to the Final Four. The Mountaineers entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed after winning the Big East tournament. In the first round, the Mountaineers beat Morgan State by 27 points. They then beat No. 10 seed Missouri, and rolled through No. 11 seed Washington to advance to the Elite Eight. Here, the Mountaineers would face Kentucky, a team full of future NBA stars. The Mountaineers prevailed again, winning 73-66 and sending them to their first Final Four under Bob Huggins. 

The 2010 Final Four will go down as one of the most heartbreaking moments in West Virginia basketball history. After driving towards the basket, Butler landed and was on the ground in pain grabbing his knee as an emotional Huggins knelt next to him. Along with Butler’s career at West Virginia being over after that play, their hopes of winning that game were over with it. The Mountaineers lost to the eventual champion Duke, 78-57. 

Bob Huggins comforts injured forward Da’Sean Butler during West Virginia’s loss to Duke in the 2010 Final Four played in Indianapolis. ( Photo Credit: WVU Athletic Communications)

“When [Butler] went down in the Final Four we had no chance after that. Just because of the emotion that our guys were faced with,” Huggins said. “Those are the things that I think really have bothered me more than anything is that those guys didn’t have an opportunity to fulfill their dreams.”

After experiencing early round exits in 2011 and 2012, the Mountaineers entered the 2015 NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed in the Midwest region. The Mountaineers defeated Buffalo and Maryland in the first two rounds. Then in the Sweet Sixteen, the Mountaineers lost to No. 1 overall seed Kentucky 78-39, in a game that most Mountaineer fans will want to forget. 

In 2016, West Virginia had arguably one of its best teams under Huggins. A team that was a No. 3 seed but got upset in the first round of the tournament to Stephen F. Austin 70-56. Recently, Huggins was asked about that game and if that has any bearing on the way he will approach this year. 

“Believe it or not the year that we got beat in Brooklyn I thought we had a heck of a team. We just didn’t respond to the challenge the way that I think those other teams did. I think we took a team for granted, which is not a very smart thing to do in a one and out situation,” Huggins said. “This is entirely different. With the bubble I think we have a little more control than what you had with the Stephen F. Austin game.”

Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks forward Thomas Walkup (middle) drives to the basket against West Virginia Mountaineers players Elijah Macon (45) , Esa Ahmad (23) and Jonathan Holton (1) in the first half in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament at Barclays Center. (Photo Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)

In 2017, the Mountaineers were a No. 4 seed in the West Region. West Virginia cruised through the first two rounds of the tournament, before losing to No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen, 61-58. 

West Virginia Mountaineers guard Jevon Carter (2) shoots against the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the first half in the semifinals of the West Regional of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at SAP Center. (Photo Credit: Kyle Terada- USA Today Sports)

2018 was the last time the Mountaineers were in the tournament as a No. 5 seed. The Mountaineers picked up wins in the first two rounds of the tournament against Murray State and Marshall. The Mountaineers then faced No. 1 seed Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen. The Mountaineers lost that game 90-78. 

The reason why this team could be the team that gets over the hump and gets past the Sweet Sixteen is the projected path the Mountaineers would take to get to the Elite Eight or beyond and the way that this team plays. 

In past years, the Mountaineers have had to face top teams such as Gonzaga and Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen and just could not do enough to overcome the talent deficit between these teams. This West Virginia team has played the best team in the country in Gonzaga and lost by five, and played arguably the second best team in the country, losing by five to Baylor. 

This team also shoots the ball better from three and averages more rebounds per game. In the four years the Mountaineers made the tournament between 2015-2018, those teams averaged 33.9% from three, while this year’s team averages 35.7% from three. Those four teams averaged 37.7 rebounds per game, while this averages 38.3 rebounds per game. 

These two statistics are key to West Virginia’s success. Assuming WVU defeats Morehead State, they will play the winner of Syracuse and San Diego State. Being able to shoot the three against Syracuse’s zone and being able to rebound against San Diego State will be key. Then, if they advance to the Sweet Sixteen, the Mountaineers would play a Houston team that averages 41.1 rebounds per game. WVU would have to shoot the ball and be able to get their misses, two things they are more than capable of to put them into the Elite Eight. 

West Virginia’s season could end against Morehead State in the first round, but they also could be in for a long stay in the bubble. West Virginia has the talent, the shooting ability, and the capability to rebound the ball on a high level; two things they will have to do well if they want to advance. If West Virginia is able to use the help of their experienced coach, and use their loads of talent the Mountaineers could be one of the last teams standing when it is all said and done.

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