SAN DIEGO — WVU’s seniors understand the survive-and-advance pressure of NCAA tournament first-round games. Recent history has been quite a teacher.
As freshmen, Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles were key parts of a fifth-seeded team that eked past Buffalo, 68-62, in the opener. In 2016, they experienced the wrath of 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin dominating the third-seeded Mountaineers, 70-56.
Then last season, as a 4-seed, WVU held off Bucknell, 86-80.
Now comes a 5-vs.-12 match-up against Murray State (26-5), the champion of the Ohio Valley Conference. The Racers own the nation’s longest winning streak, at 13 games.
“They’re really good,” said WVU’s Bob Huggins, who will be coaching in his 24th NCAA tournament March 16.
And what of his own team? Any warning signs reminiscent of the SFA upset two years ago?
“We’re practicing better than they were then,” Huggins said, praising Carter and Miles for keeping the current team on cue. “Those guys thought they were going to go beat Stephen F. Austin and then start getting ready for the tournament. These guys haven’t been like that.”
Having taken two teams to the Final Four — Cincinnati, in 1992, and WVU, in 2010 — Huggins knows this version of the Mountaineers (24-10) could make a run to San Antonio if its plays to its potential. After all, WVU beat top-seeded Virginia in December and built sizable second-half leads in three games against another No. 1 seed, Kansas, only to lose all three.
Carter has played a role in 103 wins, just four shy of Da’Sean Butler’s school record, and the two-time Big 12 defensive player of the year stepped up his offensive output this season, averaging 17 points and 6.6 assists per game.
Miles broke out of a season-long shooting slump recently and averaged 22 points at the Big 12 tournament, making 15 of 27 from 3-point range over three games. At 13 points per game, Miles is part of a balanced lineup in which various players can emerge as secondary scorers on any given night.
Center Sagaba Konate (10.8 points, 7.6 rebounds) made strides as a low-post threat, while Lamont West (9.5 points) and Beetle Bolden (8.9 points) can fill it up from 3. Forward Esa Ahmad (10.1 points., 5.3 rebounds) has been very good or invisible with not many performances in between.
The Mountaineers are 10.5-point favorites over Murray State, which is enjoying its third-highest seed ever in 15 NCAA appearances.
“The way our guys were able to finish the season, and having double-digit road wins, I was pleased to see our players get that kind of respect,” Racers coach Matt McMahon said. “It’s been a lot of fun getting to this point.”
Leading the way is one of the country’s best mid-major players, senior guard Jonathan Stark, who scores 21.8 per game. He shoots 41 percent from 3 and 88 percent at the foul line.
“He’s a good dude,” said WVU’s Bolden, who teamed with Stark during a tour of Spain last summer. “He’s a crafty player and he can score at all levels of the court. Can shoot the 3, he can drive to get his players open shots and he can finish crazy shots at the rim.”
Then Bolden added, “He’s kind of like (Oklahoma’s) Trae Young, a shorter version of him.”
Murray State also features a dynamic small forward, Terrell Miller (14.7 points, 8.3 rebounds), and underrated freshman point guard, Ja Morant (12.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists).
“Morant is a high-level point guard,” Huggins said. “He’s really good in transition, and probably as good at driving and finishing around the rim as anyone we’ve played.”
WVU is 10-8 against teams in the NCAA field, while Murray State is 0-1, losing, 81-77, to Auburn on Dec. 19.
“Our guys have eliminated everything that’s happened in the past and focused on becoming the best team they can be,” McMahon said. “Play with great energy and passion and joy a lot of toughness, because if you don’t bring toughness [today], you’re in for a world of hurt.”