BUFFALO - Watching the Notre Dame players up close as they walked onto the court at KeyBank Center is when I began to realize that Saturday was probably going to be West Virginia’s day.
The Irish, despite having a veteran team with two straight Elite Eight trips and the most NCAA Tournament victories over the last two years of any team in this year’s tournament, looked a lot different than these Mountaineers.
One team looked big, burly and manly, the other not quite so big, burly and manly. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey noticed it too.
“The one thing about West Virginia that’s the same, when we played them back in the Big East and more so today, they’ve got men,” Brey said. “They have old dudes, and staying old is a good thing in college basketball. They were a little older than us today.”
And a little bit better.
They showed it today.
Carter scored 24 and made big shot after big shot. When the two teams were trading 3s in the second half, Carter hit the biggest one of the game with 2:35 left - a contest step-back triple from the left wing with the shot clock winding down.
“Carter is a big-time winner,” Brey said. “What a stud guard he is. He’s fabulous. He’s a veteran winner in college basketball.”
Phillip and Miles are not too shabby as complimentary players. Miles scored 18 by making five out of eight from the floor, and Phillip came off the bench to provide his usual 12 points and four rebounds.
That’s 54 points from your top three backcourt men.
And there were other men out there, too. Senior forward Nathan Adrian
seemingly got his hand on every loose ball that came his way with crooked numbers in almost every single stat category. Esa Ahmad
and Elijah Macon
played like men as well.
Ahmad and Macon combined to score 22 points and grab 13 rebounds, Ahmad nearly producing another double-double with 11 and nine.
They scored close to the goal early in the game, which opened things up on the outside for Carter, Miles and Phillip.
When West Virginia has its inside-outside game working, it can score with anybody in the country. That’s notable because this is a team with a defensive reputation.
“We just today broke the school record for points in a season, and we’re averaging 82 a game,” Huggins said. “Now there’s days, honestly, when I don’t know how we get 82, but somehow we do. Our guys play hard and it forces other people to play harder, but also people aren’t used to playing at the pace we play at.”
Brey is duly impressed with what Huggins has done with the Mountaineers this year.
“This guy’s been winning for a long time at a lot of places,” he said. “He’s just a good, old basketball coach. He loves to practice, he loves to go in and talk Xs and Os. He is one of those guys that just loves talking hoops. And they’ve got a great culture about their program now, and they have found a heck of a niche in the Big 12.
“I feel for them. I don’t know how they fly three hours to every road game. It’s unbelievable that they have to do that, but yet there they are, playing in the Big 12 championship game.”
What makes Huggins so good, according to Brey, is his adaptability.
“We played West Virginia a bunch back in the old Big East days, but they were not a full-court pressure team then,” Brey said. “They played a little bit of 1-3-1 you saw, but they were still grinding you, posting you and pounding you on offense.”
In short, this is a team that could be extremely dangerous out West with a unique style that is hard for teams to simulate, particularly during those Thursday-Saturday situations with only one day’s worth of prep. Brey said Friday that he wouldn’t “overanalyze” things preparing for West Virginia’s press and simply rely on his older players.
After watching the Mountaineers control the game from start to finish, he might be having second thoughts about that.
“They’re really good. They got the look. They can play for a while. Bob’s done an unbelievable job like reinventing with full-court pressure. It’s brilliant and really a unique preparation to try and deal with it,” he concluded.