The immensity of a challenge can depend on the depth of one's experiences. Climbing Everest seems not as daunting to those who have been to the summit. Splitting atoms becomes second nature to those employed at nuclear reactors. And the immense task of toppling second-seeded West Virginia pales for Morgan State compared to what the Bears have endured in winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament for a second straight year.
Anthony Anderson, a redshirt freshman, has been undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia diagnosed on the opening day of practice. Ameer Ali, a sophomore swingman from Philadelphia, lost his father to suicide. The daughter of senior guard Troy Smith was born blind and underwent surgery to have a tumor removed. The son of head coach Todd Bozeman suffered an injury in a high school game that produced swelling on the brain and required six staples to close a head wound.
"We went through all kind of things during the season," Bozeman said Thursday. "But you have to keep your head down. You have to keep grinding. And they did it."
Morgan State (27-9) has perspective as its backbone and belief at its core for today's opener of four first-round NCAA Tournament games at HSBC Arena. The Bears, rolled by Oklahoma in last year's first round, are 17 1/2 -point underdogs to the second-seeded Mountaineers, champions of the Big East Tournament and a group with a redemptive agenda of its own after last year's one-and-done ouster at the hands of Dayton.
Typical of a Bob Huggins team, West Virginia confronts opponents with defensive tenacity, relentless rebounding and, by extension, a fondness for contact. The Mountaineers (27-6) expect the same in return. Consider that Ali must sit while serving a one-game suspension for throwing Oklahoma's Blake Griffin to the floor in last year's NCAAs.
"Our coach tells us all the time just about what he used to do a long time ago at Cincinnati," West Virginia star Da'Sean Butler said. "Everybody knew their reputation, how physical they were. So any coaches or any other teams know they're playing against a Bob Huggins team they're going to come out and play physical in general because their coach is drilling it in their head, 'You have to be physical. You have to be ready to go out and play and keep up with them.' "
There's no need for Bozeman to remold his team on the fly in an effort to match West Virginia's hard-nosed style. His worry is that the Mountaineers, they of the major conference affiliation and the national rep, have the advantage of perception.
"The nation knows how physical West Virginia is," Bozeman said. "The nation doesn't know how physical Morgan State is. Our conference, they treat us like that and they say we're physical. So if the officials look at it and they're going to say, 'Well, both teams are physical, we're going to let it go,' fine. They might say, 'West Virginia, we already know you're physical. Morgan, you can't play physical like that.' That's a difference."
Both teams have the shine of an individual star. Butler, a 6-foot-7 senior swingman, averages 17.4 points and was named MVP of the Big East Tournament after making game-winning shots against Cincinnati (quarterfinal) and Georgetown (final). He has scored at least 20 points in four of the Mountaineers' last five games.
"He's very good. He's one of the top players in the country," Bozeman said. "He'll play 82 games next year."
At the hub of Morgan State's offense is 6-4 senior Reggie Holmes, who this season dethroned Marvin "The Human Eraser" Webster as the school's all-time scoring leader. His 21.9 scoring average ranks 10th in the country.
"You know, he can shoot the ball," Butler said. "He's flat-out one of the best scorers in the country. He does a lot for that team, you know, in general."
Are the Bears facing an impossible task? They've persevered through worse.
"Last year was just like an experience," Holmes said. "This year we're more focused."
"As I told the guys," Bozeman said, "the only people that don't have a chance are the people that are not here."