The Puerto Rico Tip-Off ultimately could prove vital to West Virginia’s NCAA tournament hopes. For senior guard Gary Browne, who grew up in San Juan and previously played for the Puerto Rican national team, the event carries almost indescribable significance.
“I really want to win it because it’s my hometown,” he said. “It’s magical there.”
When West Virginia (2-0) faces George Mason (1-1) in Thursday night’s first-round game, Browne plans on having his parents, cousins and a group of friends watching courtside. Making the weekend more emotional: The fact that for the first time since high school, his grandmother Fela will watch him play.
“I can’t bring my grandmother over here because she’s too old to travel, so going over there where she can see me play just really makes me and my family happy,” he said.
Since enrolling at West Virginia, Browne typically has returned home for about one week each year. Each visit has featured a tearful reunion with Fela.
“It’s just a blessing that I still have her with me,” he said. “The first day she sees me, the only thing she does is cry because she gets to see me another year.”
West Virginia last played in Puerto Rico in 2010 and was scheduled to return next year, before Coach Bob Huggins expedited an appearance to coincide with Browne’s senior season. Now the Mountaineers aim to pile up some victories and begin building a resume that will impress the NCAA selection committee come March.
After George Mason comes a second-round game against New Mexico or Boston College. The possibilities for Sunday’s finale include Dayton, Texas A&M and defending national champion UConn.
“Win, win and win—that’s why you come here,” Huggins said. “You’re going to play good competition and there are great coaches here, so you’re going to see a lot of different things. The atmosphere is great, you just have to win.”
While averaging more than 21 minutes, Browne has made only 2-of-11 shots—typical of the shooting woes that have bothered WVU’s entire roster through two games. But he has three steals and three assists against one turnover, while playing in tandem with point guard Juwan Staten.
Both veterans remember how nonconference losses crippled West Virginia last season, leading to a second straight year with no NCAA bid.
“I fee like we’ve got a good chance to make (an NCAA tournament berth) happen this year,” Browne said. “I cannot go empty hands this season.”
Scouting George Mason: The Patriots are off to a 1-1 start with a 63-60 win over Princeton and a 68-60 loss to Cornell, both at home. Their indoctrination to the Atlantic 10 has been rocky: They won only 11 games last season and were picked 13th out of 14 teams in the league this time around.
Players to watch: Junior guard Patrick Holloway (20.5) is the lone double-digits scorer for George Mason, while 6-11 Jamaican freshman Shevon Thompson has factored inside (9.5 rebounds). … WVU has eight players averaging 16 minutes or more through two games. Four of those have scored in double figures: Devin Williams and Juwan Staten (15 ppg each), Jaysean Paige (10.5 ppg) and Jonathan Holton (10 ppg). Williams and Holton also are averaging double-digit rebounds.
Coaches: Paul Hewitt, who led Georgia Tech for 11 seasons and made a Final Four run in 2004, owns a 314-235 overall mark. He’s 58-46 in his fourth season with the Patriots. … Huggins is 742-302 in his 33rd season overall and 152-91 at WVU.
Prediction: West Virginia 77-57