MORGANTOWN — All year long, the Big 12 has been selling itself as the toughest basketball conference in the land, and a whole lot of informed observers bought in.
But it doesn’t mean a thing now.
It’s NCAA time, and what happened before matters no more.
Ask Virginia, which in 2018 became the first No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed, Maryland-Baltimore County.
Certainly, mounting a late run in the Big 12 got the West Virginia Mountaineers into the NCAA Tournament and to a No. 9 seed, winding up in Birmingham, Alabama, to face No. 8 seed Maryland of the Big Ten at 12:15 p.m. Thursday on CBS.
The Mountaineers’ record wasn’t as impressive at 19-14 as Maryland’s 21-12 mark is, but WVU’s mark carries with it the aura of Big 12 basketball.
The Terrapins are coached by Kevin Willard, whom you may remember from back in the Big East days when he coached Seton Hall. Or, if you go further back, you might remember him playing at Pitt, which adds a whole different light upon what this game is all about … especially since Bob Huggins left no doubt earlier this year that he doesn’t care very much for his northern rivals.
“I have great respect for the fan base at West Virginia,” Willard said Wednesday at his pregame press conference. “Playing at Pitt was always a big game with such a passionate fan base. I said this before, I think coach Huggins, there’s a reason he’s a Hall of Famer.
“He hasn’t stuck with the same style year in and year out. He’s adapted to his team extremely well. They are always physical, they always rebound well, they always defend well, but this is a basketball team that’s playing so much quicker than what he did back when I played against him eight, nine years ago when I was at Seton Hall. I have always admired coach Huggins in the way he adapts offensively and defensively with his team.”
Willard also has done a good job remolding the Terrapins, so much so that this year, they split two games with Purdue, the No. 1 team in the nation for a long time and a team that beat WVU. Maryland found a way to get to the tournament despite losing to Michigan twice, once by 35 points.
If there is a major flaw that the Terrapins have, it is one WVU knows a lot about — they can’t win away from their home arena. Maryland was 16-1 at home and 2-9 away.
But they have come on as the season has progressed and offer some problems for the Mountaineers.
“They make shots,” Huggins said. “They are, from everything I’ve watched, they do a great job of spreading and making shots. We have to make shots. If we make shots, obviously, we will be fine.”
That falls upon the likes of Tre Mitchell and Emmitt Matthews Jr., but mostly it falls upon Erik Stevenson, who can turn games around himself when he has the hot hand he’s had down the stretch with five straight games of 23 points or more followed by an 18-point outing.
Will the hot hand continue?
Kedrian Johnson, the Mountaineer point guard, believes it will. Having played last season against UAB in the same gym, Johnson predicted that Stevenson will light it up, to use a fitting term.
“Erik will shoot well here,” Johnson said.
When asked why, he answered, “It’s the bright lights. It’s the NCAA Tournament. Erik is going to make a lot of shots.”
Considering that Stevenson is playing what could be his final game and that he’s playing in his first NCAA Tournament, he has all the incentive anyone could seek.
“Yeah, I mean, it seems like I played a thousand college games. So, I mean, I had this feeling last year like, ‘This might be my last game.’ But I got the year back, and I’m glad I’m going to end my career where I want to in the NCAA Tournament. Yeah, you can definitely get a feeling that college is coming to an end,” he said.
The idea is to prolong it, and the Mountaineers are ready to uphold their end of the Big 12 mystique, although now it’s out there for the whole world to see.