BUFFALO, N.Y. — He told fishing yarns about pulling smallmouth bass out of Lake Erie. Speculated that losing a few pounds would make him better looking than Jay Wright. Even thanked all the handlers who warn recruits not to play for him.
Bob Huggins, those 817 wins in a rearview mirror he claims not to use, has West Virginia back in the NCAA tournament and primed for a deep run, if you trust the more trendy analytics.
Ranked 24th in the RPI and 13th among AP pollsters, the Mountaineers land much higher in the BPI (No. 7) and appear downright elite in KenPom’s ratings (No. 5).
“I think more educated people generally go that way,” Huggins deadpanned Wednesday. “They think much higher of the Mountaineers than the normal people do.”
Fourth-seeded in the West Region, his team aims to reassert its “Press Virginia” edge against Patriot League champion Bucknell in the NCAA’s opening round. A win sends WVU up against the Notre Dame-Princeton survivor.
Also appearing in the eight-team pod at KeyBank Center is defending national champion Villanova, coached by the perpetually dapper Wright.
“I used to wear a tie,” Huggins said. “I had a tie, vest, I mean the whole deal. If you look at pictures of me and Jay early, I was probably better looking back then.”
Wright followed Huggins to the podium and gave thoughtful pause to the pullover.
“I like Huggs’ look,” he said. “When you wear a nice suit and you’re in the huddle and they’re sweating on your suit — the guys are dripping on top of you. I’m thinking, ‘Why am I wearing this nice suit?’ But it’s tradition.”
Traditionally speaking, there’s no comparison between West Virginia, which owns 27 NCAA tournament victories, and Bucknell, which owns two. Dating back to Akron and Cincinnati, Huggins stands 29-22 in the Dance.
Four seniors dot the Mountaineers’ 12-man rotation, a group familiar with the Sweet 16 and the pinch of a first-round upset. Two of those veterans, Nathan Adrian and Brandon Watkins, arrived in the wake of a 19-loss season in 2013. They found Huggins committed to “fix” the anomaly, and found a coach with a sensitive side to his fiery sideline demeanor.
“Yeah, Huggs is a two-sided person,” Adrian said. “There’s what people see and what people perceive him to be, and then what he actually is, and that’s an extremely loyal, kind-hearted guy.
“Honestly, he cares about us more than anyone I’ve ever known, any coach I’ve seen or been around. He’s definitely a different guy than what you think.”
Informed of Adrian’s remarks, and similar compliments from other players, Huggins mocked the negative recruiting he encounters.
“I’ve got about 175 assistant coaches out there that never worked for me to thank for that, because they’re all the time telling people you can’t play for him. He’s too hard on you,” Huggins said,
“I thank those guys all of the time, because then I get (players) that kind of want to get coached. So those guys that think they’re killing us are really helping me.”
No. 4 West Virginia (26-8) vs. No. 13 Bucknell (26-8)
Tipoff: Thursday 2:45 p.m. in Buffalo (CBS)
RPIs: West Virginia 24, Bucknell 61
Scouting WVU: WVU’s top scorer at 13.1 points, Jevon Carter has shot 6-of-29 in four NCAA tournament games, mirroring the struggles of Daxter Miles (8-of-22) and Adrian (1-of-7). While Tarik Phillip is 8-of-19, he sank a last-minute 3 to put away Buffalo in 2015. … The Mountaineers averaged 78 points throughout the Big 12 round-robin before stalling out to 62 in three league tournament games. Was the Kansas City cooling brought on by third-time encounters against familiar foes or the result of poor ball movement? … Forcing 20.4 turnovers per game, WVU continues to lead the nation.
Scouting the Bison: Held to single-digits scoring only twice all season, Bucknell forward Zach Thomas (16 points, 6.6 rebounds) is a 41-percent shooter from 3 who’s typically selective from deep. He has been turnover-prone, however, against teams far less imposing than Press Virginia. … Sophomore guard Kimbal MacKenzie (11.5 points) grew up 90 minutes from Buffalo in Oakville, Ontario, and expects to have friends and family members in “double-digits.” … As common opponents go, Bucknell comfortably won home games against Manhattan (76-64) and Mount St. Mary’s (81-65), teams that WVU dominated 108-61 and 87-59, respectively. … 6-foot-9 center Nana Foulland is an inside force on both ends of the floor who averages 14.points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.
Line: West Virginia favored by 14
Prediction: West Virginia 84-71