BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP)—As if the bitter memories of West Virginia’s abrupt exit in last year’s NCAA tournament weren’t motivation enough for Da’Sean Butler.
There’s suddenly added incentive spurring the Mountaineers’ star senior guard, who feels slighted after West Virginia was awarded a lower-than-expected No. 2 seed entering this year’s tournament. That left Butler wondering Thursday whether being the Big East Conference champion carried much respect any more.
“None,” Butler said, shaking his head.
And that’s fine with the Mountaineers (27-6), who can start proving they deserved better on Friday against two-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion Morgan State (27-9).
“You’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt, so we’ll play,” Butler said. “And we’re putting (the bulls-eye) on every team we’re playing against.”
The Bears are no pushovers. They’re led by senior guard Reggie Holmes, whose 784 points this season rank second in the nation, and feature a powerful inside presence in Kevin Thompson, whose 11.9 rebounds rank fourth in the nation.
Matchup aside, don’t expect the Mountaineers to overlook anyone. They learned that lesson the hard way after opening last year’s tournament with a 68-60 overtime loss to Dayton.
“Pay attention to what’s in front of you as opposed to looking down the road,” Butler said. “We’re not going to take this for granted.”
Coach Bob Huggins hasn’t brought up the loss, saying he doesn’t deal with the past. But Huggins figured he didn’t need to because he can see a difference in his players’ approach this past offseason.
“The biggest thing to happen to them is they’re all about 20 to 30 pounds stronger,” Huggins said, noting many of his players spent much of the summer working out in Morgantown, W.V. “They did that willingly. They were excited about it. They were excited about this year, I think, from the minute last year ended.”
West Virginia’s trio of sophomores—forwards Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones and guard Darryl Bryant—are playing more consistently than last year. Jones is averaging 13.5 points and 7.1 rebounds, while Ebanks is averaging 11.8 points and 8.2 rebounds.
Then there’s Butler, whose clutch shooting helped the Mountaineers win their first Big East title and register 27 wins for only the third time in school history. He has scored six game-winning shots this season, including a running jumper with 4 seconds left to secure a 60-58 win over Georgetown in the Big East tournament final on Saturday.
With 2,016 points, he ranks third on the school list behind Rod Hundley and Jerry West.
“Who catches my eye? Da’Sean Butler,” Holmes said. “When the game is on the line, they go to him for tough shots, defensive plays. … He always puts the team on his back.”
In many ways, it’s a role Holmes enjoys with the Bears.
He’s the MEAC player of the year whose 21.9 points per game rank 10th in the nation, and who has accounted for nearly 30 percent of the Bears’ offensive production.
Morgan State enters the tournament having won seven straight and 19 of 21. The Bears feel better prepared entering this tournament after earning the school’s first—yet brief—taste last year following an 82-54 first-round loss to Oklahoma.
“They’re not wide-eyed, goggle-eyed and all that stuff,” coach Todd Bozeman said. “You can see how they are walking and how they talk. That part of it makes a difference.”
In his fourth season, Bozeman has played a big role in leading the program out of obscurity after the Bears won 39 games in the five years prior to his arrival.
For Bozeman, who has a 94-50 record at Morgan State, it was a long-awaited second chance at coaching again. He was banned by the NCAA for eight years after he admitted to paying a recruit while coaching at California, where he led those Bears to three tournament appearances.
“This is an honor and a privilege,” Bozeman said. “You are allowed to dream at the beginning of the year, and you can dream again when you get here. And then it’s all about getting out on the floor and playing.”
There’s very little history between the two schools, who have met only once before in 1995, when West Virginia won 108-80. Morgan State did play a competitive schedule in which four of their nine losses—including a 90-81 defeat at Louisville in November—came against schools that qualified for the tournament.
The Mountaineers endured a far tougher schedule playing in the Big East. They’ve won six straight and eight of nine since losing consecutive games to Villanova and Pitt in February.
“We are tougher,” Huggins said. “But you’ve still got to make shots. Nobody’s ever won nothing-nothing.”