MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As a freshman at New Mexico State, Jermaine Haley scored a combined 16 points in two games against Grand Canyon.
That’s the only up-close-and-personal experience any West Virginia player has against the Antelopes.
“There’s only a couple of guys still left there from when I was there,” Haley said Tuesday, on the eve of the Mountaineers facing Grand Canyon in the College Basketball Invitational. “From what I remember, they’re definitely a good team and we shouldn’t take them lightly at all.”
The thought of West Virginia (14-20) taking anyone lightly is a sort of brain-twister after its first losing season since 2012-13. But as the only team from a Power Five conference playing in the CBI, and after WVU knocked off two NCAA tournament teams last week to reach the Big 12 semifinals, the Mountaineers suddenly find themselves as a favorite again.
They’re 5-point favorites for Wednesday night, despite Grand Canyon ranking 96th in the NET formula used by the NCAA, 10 spots above WVU (106th).
The Mountaineers haven’t been favored since Jan. 21 against Baylor, a stretch of 15 games.
“It’s a little weird,” guard Chase Harler said. “The second half of the season, I felt like we were a pretty dangerous team, because we didn’t have anything to lose.
“The first half of the season wasn’t great, but we’re playing more freely now. I guess being a favorite now is a better feeling than being completely the underdog, but we can’t take this tournament lightly.”
Grand Canyon (20-13) is coached by former NBA all-star Dan Majerle, but the roster earned the Mountaineers’ respect after players began watching video clips. “Personally, I feel like this is going to be one of the hardest games,” Harler said.
The winner advances to Monday’s quarterfinal round, against the winner of Coastal Carolina-Howard.
West Virginia’s experience in the CBI is not one of disappointment, but rather an extension of a season that began to show potential in late February.
“They wanted to keep playing,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to get them some experience.
“I thought defensively, we’ve been much better. We’re competing harder. By and large, we’ve ran decent offense.”
All of that has come once the Mountaineers’ core became a group of four freshmen, two first-year junior-college transfers and juniors Lamont West and Harler.
WVU got to that group only after dealing with injury issues to Sagaba Konate and Beetle Bolden — Bolden later transferred — as well as the dismissals of forwards Esa Ahmad and Wes Harris.
Freshman guard Trey Doomes announced he was transferring from West Virginia on Monday.
What’s left has taken a keen interest in continuing to play, as well as in the CBI itself.
“Grand Canyon is a very good team. There are some other very competitive teams in there,” Harler said. “We’ll have to come out and play the way we’ve been playing. We all know it’s do or die now at this point. Kind of like the Big 12 [tournament] attitude, we’re just going to go out and play hard and compete to the best of our ability.”
Huggins said Grand Canyon, which took third in the Western Athletic Conference regular season and lost in the finals against New Mexico State, would challenge WVU with its size.
Forwards Michael Finke and Alessandro Lever are both 6-foot-10 and average more than 12 points per game.
Finke is a graduate transfer from Illinois, while Lever is a sophomore from Italy who was the WAC’s Freshman of the Year last season. Junior guard Carlos Johnson – a transfer from Washington – led the Anetlopes in scoring at 14.6 points per game.
“They’ve been good all year,” Huggins said. “They have a little more momentum, but they’ve been good all year. They’re huge. They’re the biggest team we’ll play. There’s no doubt about that.”