TAMPA, Fla. -- A year ago, West Virginia won its final two regular-season basketball games, including a thriller at Villanova that saw the Mountaineers shake an awful start, stage a comeback and win in overtime to address a whole bunch of concerns at once.
Then the Mountaineers had some shaky practices and one in particular that spooked them before the Big East Conference tournament. True, they won the championship, but as the players look back on it now, especially with what preceded this year's performance at Madison Square Garden, they do have to wonder.
"We hit a buzzer-beater off the backboard against Cincinnati, Notre Dame missed a shot to beat us and we hit another buzzer-beater against Georgetown," senior point guard Joe Mazzulla said. "Did we really have momentum or did we use that Big East experience to make the NCAA run?"
Whatever the answer, those Mountaineers won four tournament games to make the Final Four for the first time since 1959. These Mountaineers begin the march back in Thursday's game against UAB or Clemson, which met Tuesday night in the First Four at Dayton, Ohio.
Tipoff is at 12:15 p.m. on CBS from the St. Pete Times Forum.
Who knows how these Mountaineers will end, but they begin with similar uncertainty. A three-game winning streak to end the regular season came right before cause for concern.
"We had two of our worst practices of the year before the Big East tournament," junior forward Kevin Jones said. "We just weren't prepared to play at all."
WVU played arguably its best half of the season in its game against Marquette last Wednesday, but then played perhaps its worst half of the year after halftime and lost, 67-61.
"We didn't have any momentum going in," Mazzulla said. "It was only a matter of time before we were sent home."
It was the first time in four trips with Coach Bob Huggins that the Mountaineers hadn't won at least two games and reached the quarterfinals, but they kind of saw that coming. The Mountaineers weren't fit mentally or physically.
"A lot of that is we were sick," Huggins said, listing Mazzulla, guard Jonnie West and forwards Deniz Kilicli and Cam Thoroughman as those affected most. "When you've only got nine guys, man, if you've got some guys who are sick and pale and don't feel very good, it's hard to have good practices."
The Mountaineers (20-11), who are seeded No. 5 in the NCAA East Region, returned to campus last Thursday and had the day off before they were to return to practice the next day.
"You don't really know what to expect," Mazzulla said. "We prepared ourselves for an hour-and-a-half film session, the usual when we're not playing well."
WVU was instead treated to some shooting and conditioning drills as part of a light and abbreviated workout. Afterward, some broke off to play some games to keep having fun. Others just went somewhere to relax.
Neither is a luxury teams get to enjoy to often this time of year.