NCAA tournament: Love affair with state drives West Virginia
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins looks on during a practice in Buffalo, N.Y., Thursday, March 18, 2010.
West Virginia's Devin Ebanks shoots during practice.
West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler shoots during practice.
West Virginia's Da''Sean Butler shoots during practice.
West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler signs autographs for fans.
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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- From West Virginia's panhandle to the far southern reaches, from down in Pineville clear over to Harpers Ferry, there are 15 young men who have become the undeniable identity of an entire state.
"We are West Virginia's team," Mountaineers basketball coach Bob Huggins said. "We are West Virginia's franchise."
Senior forward Da'Sean Butler, who has hit six winning shots for West Virginia this season, understands what these Mountaineers mean to the fan base.
"Everybody is overjoyed because we are it for them."
The Mountaineers surely are, and at 27-6 West Virginia has the highest seed (No. 2 in the East) in its NCAA tournament history and will play 15th-seeded Morgan State (27-9) at 12:15 p.m. today.
• Game: No. 2 seed West Virginia (27-6) vs. No. 15 seed Morgan State (27-9), 12:15 p.m. today, at HSBC Arena, Buffalo, N.Y. in NCAA East Region first round.
• TV: KDKA.
• West Virginia: Has won 46 of its past 51 games against unranked teams and 14 of the past 18 televised by CBS. ... Coach Bob Huggins is making his 18th Division I NCAA tournament appearance; four active coaches have more. ... Coming off its first Big East tournament championship and paced by senior forward Da'Sean Butler (17.4 points per game).
• Morgan State: Earned an automatic bid by winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship. ... On a seven-game win streak and has won 19 of its past 21 games. ... Led by former California coach Todd Bozeman, who is making his fifth tournament appearance -- the previous four with the Golden Bears. Hidden stat: Huggins will be coaching in the arena where he earned his 600th career victory Dec. 22, 2007, when the Mountaineers beat Canisius.
• Hidden stat: Huggins will be coaching in the arena where he earned his 600th career victory Dec. 22, 2007, when the Mountaineers beat Canisius.
While many think of Huggins' brusque and gruff on-court demeanor in which no official seems safe, all this success has triggered the emergence of a much different side of him.
There have been times when Huggins has choked up while talking about West Virginia's fans, times when tears have welled as he has told of how this on-court success is done, in some part at least, in appreciation for those in the stands or watching on television.
He did so on ESPN after the Mountaineers won the Big East tournament Saturday. Since then, many people closely connected to the West Virginia program have explained how it was one of his most emotional moments since becoming the coach in April 2007.
He also did that on his postgame radio show after West Virginia's loss at Connecticut Feb. 22, the last time his team stumbled before going on its current six-game win streak. Huggins talked about how he never had the same type of fan support when he was coaching at Cincinnati as he does at West Virginia.
And then there was Thursday afternoon, as Huggins sat high on the dais facing the hot lights and fielding questions in the requisite media session. There, he did it again.
"I was born in Morgantown and lived there until I was 9 years old," Huggins said, deviating from the monotony of questions about X's and O's. "So I know what it means, and having played [at West Virginia], I know what it means.
"That's what I think the people on the outside don't understand. They don't understand the fabric and the core of the people in West Virginia, which I do. And that's why I appreciate being there so much."
It is that mutual appreciation that has forced scores of Mountaineers fans to travel here.
And that ardent support played a role in Butler, from Newark, N.J., choosing to play for the Mountaineers. He is not the only one. Of the 15 players on West Virginia's roster, only walk-on Cam Payne is a native son.
"[The fans] are one of the reasons I came to West Virginia; there's no NBA teams or any pro teams at all," Butler said. "There's nothing really there except the college, the school. And everybody loves our school to death."
Make no mistake; it is a love that bounces both ways.
"They are there every game, whether we win or lose," Butler said. "And they stay after the games and they tell us they look forward to the next game.
"They do everything real fans are supposed to do."
First Published March 19, 2010 12:00 am