"When you look at the 32 teams in (the NIT), this may be the strongest NIT field in a long time," said head coach John Beilein. "Look at all of the teams that have 20 or 21 wins that are in the field. There are a lot of them.
Just how close were the Mountaineers to a third straight berth in the NCAA Tournament? Only those on the selection committee know for sure. By virtue of their high seed in the NIT, you can logically conclude that they couldn't have been all that far away from going back to the Big Dance.
"I think it's a good signal that we must have been pretty close," Beilein acknowledged. "Whether we were one, two, three, or six away doesn't make a difference. What's really key now is we have an opportunity to keep playing. (There are) 200 some teams that aren't still playing.
"I think that everybody (on the team) is excited," he noted. "I don't know if they've looked at the whole field, and I haven't looked at the brackets, but I think that they realize that there are some teams – between Syracuse, and Drexel, and the Air Force Academy – that have had great, great years. We understand that this is not disappointing to be in the NIT. This is absolutely terrific for us to still be playing."
West Virginia's first round opponent, Delaware State, comes to the NIT on the heels of a heartbreaking loss to Florida A&M in the MEAC finals. The Hornets were leading late, only to see the Rattlers convert on a lob play at the buzzer to deny them a chance at playing in college basketball's biggest event. Led by head coach Greg Jackson, the Hornets come to Morgantown with an impressive non-conference schedule. State, the regular season MEAC champion, has played road games this season at Pitt, North Carolina State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Marquette, and Michigan.
Though their only quality non-conference win came at Buffalo, the Hornets were terrific in MEAC play, finishing with a 16-2 record. Having watched film on his upcoming opponent, Beilein is very impressed with what he's seen from the battle-tested visitors.
"If you watch (the non-conference games), most of those situations it was a close game for most of the game. It wasn't the 40-point blowouts that you see with some other teams doing the same thing. They're well-coached, and they stay in games. Like many of the schools that choose to play a lot of guarantee games, that's tough for them to do. What's impressive about what Delaware State does is that they've done that every year. And then, they go into their league and are just exceptional."
This will not be the first meeting between Beilein's Mountaineers and Jackson's Hornets. Way back in 2002, Beilein's very first game as West Virginia head coach came at the Coliseum against Delaware State. The Mountaineers won that meeting by a final of 59-46. While none of the players in that game for either team will take the court on Tuesday night, Beilein did dig deep into the film vault for the tape from that game, and viewed it with the team on Monday.
"We just wanted to show them general concepts of how they played, and compare them to how they're playing now," Beilein said. "You're looking for anything you can right now to give (the players) some kind of idea to use their intelligence to play this team either way with their offense and their defense."
NOTES: The Hornets have had a hectic travel schedule over the past couple of days. Following their loss to Florida A&M on Saturday night, the team returned to Delaware. After learning their NIT fate on Sunday night, the team was scheduled to fly out again at 11:00 A.M. Monday morning for Tuesday's game in Morgantown.