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WVU basketball: Mountaineers will have little time to prepare for first-round opponent

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- This was perhaps a throwaway line from Bob Huggins Sunday night.

The coaching veteran of 18 NCAA Tournament appearances begins his 19th at 12:15 p.m. Thursday.

"You try to be as prepared as you possibly can," he said, "and hopefully you don't get surprised."

Then again, maybe that wasn't as innocent as the words might indicate. Huggins also is a veteran of 29 sideline seasons, and the West Virginia coach mastered the art of subtlety long, long ago.

The NCAA Tournament is about surprises, and if they aren't perpetrated by the participants, every so often the organizing body lends a hand.

The 22nd-ranked Mountaineers (20-11) were dealt the biggest surprise very early on the selection show Sunday, not when they were seeded No. 5 in the East Region, but when they discovered they'd be playing either Clemson (21-11) or UAB (22-8).

Those two play at 9 p.m. - or so - tonight. Both were good enough to make the field without an automatic bid and both are good enough to be taken seriously ... especially as a No. 12 seed, which every year seems to have one or more that gives the No. 5s trouble.

Yet the Mountaineers won't know who they're playing in Tampa, Fla., at lunchtime Thursday until a short while before midnight tonight. WVU isn't permitted to send anyone to Dayton, Ohio, to scout tonight's game.

So much for preparing as much as possible. Hello, surprises.

"It seems to me if you're going to play somebody like that, you probably ought to play Friday," Huggins said. "It's better for them. It's better for the team that's trying to prepare for them."

When WVU returned from New York and its opening-game loss to Marquette in the Big East tournament, the team practiced Friday and Sunday and went pretty light.

There was no real value in going hard until an NCAA opponent was named. There were shooting and conditioning drills and a chance for everyone to get their feet back beneath them. 

Ideally, the Mountaineers would have practiced Monday and today and spent time on themselves and then the opponent they knew they'd be playing. Now it's some time on UAB and some time on Clemson and not as much time on themselves.

In truth, that last part isn't that big of a deal. The Mountaineers pretty much know who and what they are and would use the time to get and stay sharp again rather than put in a bunch of new stuff or try to become better shooters.

"I think it's a good thing for us to spend a couple of days working on ourselves and what we have to do instead of spending 2 1/2 days on someone else," WVU senior point guard Joe Mazzulla said. "We get to focus on the things we do well and what we'll have to do well to be successful in the tournament. Then we can worry about who we're playing."

Still, it's unusual and at the minimum it disrupts a routine these players have come to know in previous NCAA trips. You'd like to focus on just two teams as opposed to three before traveling here.

"It does make you anxious," junior forward Kevin Jones said. "You want to go out there and play, especially after a long layoff, and you want to win after losing in the Big East tournament. Everyone's eager to go out there and prepare, but it's different when you don't know who it is."

When WVU arrives in Tampa later today, it still won't know its opponent for a few more hours and will only get to the real work when they show up at the St. Pete Times Forum for practice Wednesday.

The opponent will have it worse.

UAB and Clemson learned their assignments Sunday night. They were due in Dayton for a press conference and practice Monday morning. They'll play tonight and the winner will go from the postgame process right to the plane the NCAA provides and fly here.

At first, the winner was to then bank a few hours sleep and be up early and at the Forum for the first press conference at 11:20 a.m. Wednesday with a public practice to follow.

Quite likely realizing how fouled up that was, the NCAA revised the schedule Monday and the winner has a 6 p.m. press conference and a practice right after that.

The game is still the first one in the national tournament the following day, though.

"After watching UConn win five games in five days, I think the idea that you get tired playing a couple games in a row, it's hard to look at it that way any more," senior forward Cam Thoroughman said of Connecticut's Big East title run. "It just shows you that if you get momentum and get on a roll, good things can happen."

Momentum aside, anything else the Mountaineers will know about the Tigers or the Blazers will be based on film - and coaches will always prefer in-person scouting to film scouting.

Since WVU can't scout tonight's game in person, Huggins has instead assigned one assistant to the film of Clemson and one to the film of UAB and another to who might be around in the following round.

That figures to be 11th-ranked Kentucky more than Princeton, but that leads to another shocker that, in truth, shouldn't be so shocking.

Huggins and John Calipari are together again and you know CBS is eyeballing that matchup for the unopposed national television slot at noon Saturday or the primetime matchup that night.

The coaches saw it coming, too. At 6:01 p.m. Sunday, right when the selection show started and all the coaches could finally exhale and know there was nothing left to do but wait, Calipari sent Huggins a text message.

"You know we're going to be playing each other again," it read.

Huggins scoffed.

"I didn't think there was any chance," he said. "His point is, I think, they're No. 7 in the RPI. We're No. 20. We probably should be playing a little later."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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