West Virginia's road to the Final Four will start on Interstate 79. The Mountaineers will make the short trip from Morgantown to Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh for their NCAA tournament game Thursday against Gonzaga.
West Virginia is the No. 10 seed and Gonzaga the No. 7 seed, but the Mountaineers will play a little more than an hour from their campus while the Bulldogs, from Spokane, Wash., and the West Coast Conference, have to fly across the country.
It will be West Virginia's second game at Consol Energy Center. The Mountaineers played Duquesne last season in a non-conference game.
The winner of the West Virginia-Gonzaga game will take on the winner of the Ohio State-Loyola, Md. game. The Buckeyes are a No. 2 seed, Loyola No. 15 seed.
"We need all the help we can get, so I hope it helps," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said of the advantage of playing close to home. "Hopefully [the fans] are on the phone now trying to get tickets because we are only going to get our allotment. Hopefully they find ways to get there, because I know they did when we played in Washington, D.C. [in 2008 when the Mountaineers beat Arizona in the first round and upset Duke in the second round.]"
For Huggins, it's a fifth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance since taking over the Mountaineers in 2007-08, and it's the seventh NCAA tournament appearance in eight years for the Mountaineers.
West Virginia finished with a .500 record in the Big East Conference and lost Wednesday its first game at the conference tournament. But the Mountaineers played a strong non-conference schedule and likely finalized their spot in the 68-team field with a victory at South Florida in the regular-season finale.
"I don't know anything more than anyone else, but when all those [bracketologists] have you as a No. 10 seed, you are probably a No. 10," Huggins said. "We were pretty much a consensus No. 10. No one really talked about us being on the bubble. They always had us as a lock. Whenever we got the South Florida win, I thought we were in the tournament. When you look at our numbers, they weren't even close to the bubble teams. More than half of our schedule was top-100 [Ratings Percentage Index] teams. We did what they asked us to do. The crazy thing is if you start thinking about what would have happened had we won some of those games."
The Mountaineers (19-13) did not win a lot of those games Huggins referenced, and they struggled near the end of the regular season. They lost eight of their final 12, including an overtime loss to Connecticut in the Big East tournament.
Gonzaga (25-6) finished second in the West Coast Conference in the regular season behind Saint Mary's. The Bulldogs also lost to Saint Mary's in the WCC tournament title game in overtime.
Coach Mark Few's squad is led by freshman guard Kevin Pangos (13.8 ppg) and junior forward Elias Harris (13.1 ppg). The Bulldogs also have WCC defensive player of the year in senior center Robert Sacre.
"I don't know very much," Huggins said. "I have seen some of their highlights. I know Mark Few pretty well. We played them a couple times when I was in Cincinnati."
West Virginia is one of nine teams from the Big East to get in the tournament. The Big East landed an NCAA record 11 berths in the tournament a year ago. This season was viewed as a down year for the league, but the committee chose South Florida as one of its final four teams to make the tournament.
Connecticut, a No. 9 seed, wasn't on the bubble, but the Huskies became the sixth team from the Big East to make the NCAA tournament with a losing record in conference play.
Syracuse was the previous team to do it in '06, although the Orange earned an automatic bid because they won the Big East tournament championship. The other Big East teams to qualify for the NCAA tournament with losing records in league play were Seton Hall in 1993-94, Villanova in 1990-91, Providence in 1988-89 and Boston College in 1984-85.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfiit1. First Published March 12, 2012 4:00 AM