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West Virginia hopes routine doesn't repeat itself in NCAA Tournament

| Sunday, March 12, 2017, 7:51 p.m.
West Virginia players celebrate after beating Kansas State in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals Friday, March 10, 2017.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins looks at the scoreboard during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State for the championship of the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Mo., Saturday, March 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va — It's become routine for West Virginia.

Play several close games in the Big 12 Tournament, come up just short in the championship and then try to focus on preparing for the big one.

It happened last season.

The Mountaineers lost a tight one against Kansas for the conference title, but, as their players tell it, spent too much time dwelling on it and lost in humiliating fashion in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Stephen F. Austin.

Coming off their second consecutive conference finals loss and slotted to start the NCAA Tournament on Thursday against Bucknell (26-8, 16-3 Patriot League), the Mountaineers (26-7, 12-6 Big 12) know they must learn from past mistakes. West Virginia is the No. 4 seed in the West region.

“We just let a championship slip through our fingers for the second consecutive season,” junior guard Jevon Carter said Sunday. “One we knew we should have had, like we should have had it last year. We have a chance going forward to not let what happened in the NCAA Tournament happen again. Whatever we have to do to prevent history from repeating itself again, we have to do it.”

Last year's experience is instructive for the players and their coach, Bob Huggins. The loss to Stephen F. Austin came after one of the worst weeks of practice Huggins said he can remember, and this year's turnaround against Bucknell comes with one fewer day to prepare.

As his team hurriedly readies for a trip to Buffalo, the site where West Virginia began its Final Four run in 2010, Huggins said the same type of malaise isn't acceptable this season.

“We had no enthusiasm. We were just kind of out there,” Huggins said of last season's tournament loss. “I tell them I'm going to throw their (butt) out if they're that way this time. There's no sense wasting time practicing if you're not going to practice.”

A shot of enthusiasm would serve WVU well against Bucknell, which swept the Patriot League regular season and tournament titles behind 6-foot-9 force Nana Foulland, the conference player of the year.

Although Huggins admits he doesn't know anything about the Bison, he's quite familiar with a potential second-round opponent: Notre Dame, an old Big East rival.

“I've watched a little bit of Notre Dame when they've been on,” Huggins said. “I like Mike (Brey), and I have a lot of respect for Mike. So I've watched a little of them when I can. They're good.”

West Virginia wasn't surprised with its seeding or first-round site, but the Mountaineers did not expect to land in the West, which features Gonzaga, Arizona and Florida State as the top seeds. The region semifinals and finals are scheduled for next week in San Jose, Calif.

David Statman is a freelance writer.

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