Bob Huggins took responsibility for the debacle in Brooklyn last season, when West Virginia practiced poorly going into the NCAA Tournament before Stephen F. Austin sent the Mountaineers home after one game. Upon review, he determined his team made the cardinal sin of overlooking an opponent.
It was uncharacteristic for Huggins-coached players to get full of themselves, and he made sure it didn't happen again this year against Bucknell. The Mountaineers were ready from tipoff, pulled away with a 17-2 run in the first half, withstood testy Bucknell in the second and advanced with an 86-80 victory over the Bison.
The Mountaineers will play Notre Dame on Saturday afternoon. The Fighting Irish beat Princeton, 60-58, in the first game in Buffalo. West Virginia will have a tougher time shutting down Notre Dame's guards, starting with Matt Farrell. It should be a good matchup between two teams from power conferences.
West Virginia's success begins with its full-court press and ends with rebounding, a lethal combination that can wear down any team in the country. It's relentless and uncomplicated style, as UB found out two years ago in Columbus. Bucknell had a similar experience Thursday afternoon in KeyBank Center.
West Virginia hardly went through the motions against Bucknell. The Mountaineers were reminded that teams from smaller conferences show up ready to play and with little to lose in the Big Dance. Bucknell stayed in the game because it took care of the ball and refused to back down.
WVU hasn't gone deep into the NCAAs since 2010, when it reached the Final Four before falling to Duke. It's a long way from contending for a national championship. In fact, they're going to have a difficult time beating Notre Dame. But at least the Mountaineers regained their competitive edge.
The Mountaineers weren't able to breathe easily until Tarik Phillip made two free throws and gave them an 83-74 lead with 25 seconds left. Phillip led WVU with 16 points. Esa Ahmad and Lamont West added 15 each.
Bucknell deserved credit for hanging tough against a bigger, more athletic team in West Virginia. The Bison exposed a mismatch inside with Nana Foulland, who was named the top player in the Patriot League. The 6-9 forward kept the Bison in the game in the first half before finishing with 18 points.
Kimbal Mackenzie, a 6-1 sophomore from Oakville, Ontario, played one of his best games of the season for Bucknell. He did an admirable job against WVU's pressure, made some big shots in key situations in the second half and finished with 23 points in defeat. West Virginia simply was too much to handle.
Huggins reminded his players before the game Thursday that they afford to take anyone for granted. The Mountaineers are a dangerous team, however, when everything comes together. They finished in a three-way tie for second behind only Kansas and reached the conference championship game before falling to Iowa State.
In the second half, the Mountaineers showed what can happen when it gets away from punching first and asking questions later. Bucknell had four easy buckets and cut the deficit to three points when Mackenzie buried a three-pointer from the corner with 12:12 remaining
Senior Nathan Adrian was a picture of their tireless approach Thursday. The senior forward from Morgantown, W.Va., was barely recruited out of high school, but it mattered little to him because he heard from the one program he desired. He grew up watching Huggins and desperately wanted to play for him.
He was terrific Thursday, particularly while his teammates gained their feet in the first half. He scored eight points in a 5½-minute stretch in the first half. He had 10 points and five rebounds before intermission after averaging 9.9 points and 5.9 rebounds in 34 games before the Big Dance.
Adrian made a play that embodied West Virginia's style in the second half when he hit the floor for a loose ball and made a perfect pass from his back to a cutting Lamont West for a dunk and a 54-45 lead.
West Virginia was bigger and more athletic than Bucknell, the Patriot League champion, and it showed. Now, the Mountaineers are ready for the second round.