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West Virginia's time is now

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By Tony Dobies
Monday, March 7, 2011

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia junior forward Kevin Jones would be the first to say last year's runs to the Big East Tournament title and Final Four weren't easy.

Last February, the Mountaineers looked like a disappointment. Then, WVU won three straight games to end the regular season and had a historic run the likes of which the program hadn't managed in 50 years.

"We had a lot of problems last year that people didn't know about," Jones said. "We got together in March, which is what everybody remembers."

It's happening again.

Since last season, the Mountaineers are 11-0 in the month of March. In their past five games this season, West Virginia has won four times -- three of those victories coming against Top 25 teams -- and has gone from a bubble team to one looking to improve its seed in the NCAA Tournament.

"We just continue to work hard no matter what throughout the season," senior point guard Joe Mazzulla said. "We knew at some point it was going to click and come together and eventually pay off."

West Virginia finished sixth in the Big East and earned a first-round bye in this week's conference tournament. In their opener, the Mountaineers will face No. 11 seed Marquette or No. 14 Providence at 9 p.m. Wednesday.

"Instead of playing five games, we only have to play four," point guard Truck Bryant said. "Considering we were in 11th place in the Big East last week ... that's huge in this tough conference."

It hasn't been easy. West Virginia has dealt with a season-ending knee injury to freshman forward Kevin Noreen, the defections of sophomore forward Dan Jennings and freshman guard Noah Cottrill and a three-game suspension for guard Casey Mitchell -- who happened to hit two pivotal 3-pointers in Saturday's 72-70 home win against No. 11 Louisville.

Still, West Virginia finished with a seventh straight 20-win season despite playing what coach Bob Huggins called the toughest schedule in program history.

"It's not even close," he said.

West Virginia is peaking at the right time -- again. The players credit that to Huggins' ability to prepare them for the games that truly count. In his first three seasons with the Mountaineers, Huggins' teams have made it to at least the semifinals of the Big East Tournament, and they have advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament or farther twice.

"We've been battle-tested and been in every situation possible," Mazzulla said. "And we've just persevered."

Added Jones: "We have something to play for now. Everybody kind of wrote us off. ... We just banded together like brothers."

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