West Virginia always knew the Big East tournament would be somewhat of a homecoming, considering all five starters for the seventh-ranked Mountaineers hail from the New York City area.
It turns out the team’s first game at Madison Square Garden will also be nostalgic for its coach.
Bob Huggins will try to lead West Virginia to a second victory over Cincinnati in less than two weeks and extend his former team’s NCAA tournament drought as the Mountaineers and Bearcats square off in Thursday’s Big East quarterfinals.
Cincinnati reached the NCAA tournament in each of Huggins’ last 14 seasons as coach, but the Bearcats haven’t returned since his ugly divorce with the school in 2005.
After a quick stop at Kansas State, Huggins has remained successful at West Virginia. In his third season in Morgantown, he’s certain to take the team to the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive time.
The Mountaineers (24-6) solidified their spot in the nation’s top 10 by closing the regular season with three straight victories. They opened that stretch with a 74-68 win over the Bearcats on Feb. 27 - Huggins’ first victory in three tries against his former school - and went on to beat ranked opponents Georgetown and Villanova.
That gave West Virginia the No. 3 seed in the country’s toughest conference and a double bye as the team tries again for its first Big East tournament title.
“I know for a fact that we are very capable of winning,” senior forward Da’Sean Butler said. “I really do think we’re favored to win.”
Butler, who was named to the All-Big East first team this week, leads the Mountaineers with 17.2 points per game. He averaged 19.0 in last year’s Big East tournament to help West Virginia reach the semifinals.
The Newark, N.J., native is part of a quintet of local standouts the Mountaineers will bring to Manhattan, where he scored a season-high 33 points in a 79-60 win at St. John’s on Feb. 6.
Sophomores Devin Ebanks and Truck Bryant both hail from inside the New York City limits. Ebanks raised his game during last season’s tournament, averaging 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds.
“I’m always excited to come back home and play,” Ebanks said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll be hyped up for the games.
“It creates kind of a bond for us. We all hang out together, go places together, and it relates to the court. We play for each other.”
West Virginia may not be able to recover if it gets off to the type of start it did in its regular-season finale Saturday at then-No. 9 Villanova. The Mountaineers shot 24 percent from the field in the first half, and trailed 29-16 at halftime.
They surged back to beat the Wildcats 68-66 in overtime, led by 21 points and 10 rebounds from Butler.
“We’ve done it all year but I don’t think I can take any more of these kind,” said Huggins, whose team erased a six-point halftime deficit last month against Cincinnati. “If there’s such a thing as making people overconfident we’re the masters at it, but our guys compete.”
There is no question the 11th-seeded Bearcats (18-14) have also come to New York to compete.
Their own New York native, conference rookie of the year Lance Stephenson, made the winning free throw in the closing seconds of a 69-68 win over Rutgers on Tuesday.
Cincinnati trailed Louisville by nine at halftime 24 hours later, but fought back for a 69-66 win. A 54-33 rebounding edge helped boost the Bearcats, who grabbed 28 boards at the offensive end.
“When we get the ball in the paint, we get it on the rim, we can rebound the ball,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said.
West Virginia outrebounded Cincinnati 41-30 last month.