SAN DIEGO — It could have been entirely the selection committee’s doing, this West Virginia vs. Marshall tussle. Shuffle the seeds only a smidgen and the Mountain State’s two Division I teams could’ve gotten their scrap on during a 4-13 first-round game.
Therein lies the margin between Almost Heaven and the two hours of actual hoops heaven we’ll experience Sunday night.
The Herd isn’t getting a crack at WVU because some NCAA back-room bracket-builders manufactured it. The Herd is getting a shot because they earned it.
Having never won an NCAA tournament game until Friday, Marshall remedied their 0-for-Forever by taking down fourth-seeded Wichita State 81-75.
Marshall prevailed by Jon Elmore shooting 3s through an RPI that had the Shockers ranked 71 spots better.
Marshall prevailed by flipping the script on a Wichita State program that had posted 10 victories in the previous five NCAA tournaments.
Marshall prevailed despite absorbing Wichita State’s 15-1 run, the kind that typically convinces underdogs to relent.
And it prevailed despite its tallest player actually losing points on a wide-open dunk. The ball popped out of the basket and Ajdin Penava received a technical for tugging on the rim in the most non-egregious manner imaginable. (Then again, college basketball fans know there’s not much referee John Higgins can’t imagine.)
Now imagine the Herd and the Mountaineers — schools that can’t agree on where to play within their own state — meeting at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, for a spot in the Sweet 16 no less.
In December 2014, Dan D’Antoni was new on the job when he made the tactical error of claiming WVU would prove it’s “afraid of us” by ending the series. Bob Huggins called the assertion “laughable,” mocked D’Antoni for having coached 1,116 fewer college games, and pointed out that some of the state’s newspapers don’t care enough about Marshall basketball to print its boxscores.
Unofficially, that became the moment Huggins squashed the renewal of a neutral-site contract. Never mind the talk of WVU not liking the revenue split from the Charleston Civic Center, and Huggins’ argument that the game was an “RPI killer” rings hollow when his schedule this season included four teams outside the RPI top 300. At the crux of things, D’Antoni had rubbed raw a coach who wielded all the leverage.
On Friday, after West Virginia beat Murray State to set up a second-round game vs. The Herd, Huggins wasn’t dredging up yesteryear’s trash-talk.
“I don’t want to get into the reasons. They can come to Morgantown anytime they want to play. We would love for them to.”
To a follow-up question came the reply: “I don’t want to get into all that. You’re trying to do that. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to bite on what you’re trying to do.”
But Huggins couldn’t walk away sounding gruff on a day when WVU and Marshall secured their places among the final 32 teams playing college basketball. So he ended by emphasizing his “great respect for what Danny has done” and pointed out his decades-long relationships with Herd assistants Mark Cline and Scott Rigot.
“This is not a Hatfields and McCoy thing,” Huggins said.
Perhaps not on an administrative level, but the five-on-five action could rival Grapevine Creek, with San Diego’s palm trees substituting for pawpaw bushes. Marshall’s roster includes eight West Virginia natives, kids who would’ve jumped at an offer from WVU and the opportunity to become NCAA regulars. Instead they traced a less-glorious path and changed the tenor of a long-dormant mid-major. Little brother, underdog, Cinderella, stick on the Herd whatever label you have handy. March’s unregulated mania anoints the anonymous.
TV networks pushed Sunday’s game to the last prime-time slot, delaying tip-off until 9:40 p.m. Eastern. If Marshall plays with the usual fun-gun flair and Press Virginia arrives ornery, it will be worth the wait.