MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — As a freshman at New Mexico State, Jermaine Haley scored a combined 16 points in two games against Grand Canyon.
That is the extent of the up-close-and-personal experience any West Virginia player has against the Antelopes.
“There’s only a couple of guys left still there when I was there,” Haley said, as the Mountaineers prepared to face Grand Canyon for Wednesday’s 7 p.m. tip-off in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational (CBI). “From what I remember, they’re definitely a good team and we shouldn’t take them lightly at all.”
The thought of West Virginia (14-20) taking anyone lightly is a sort of brain-twister after its first losing season since 2012-13, but as the only team from a Power Five Conference playing in the CBI and after WVU made a run last week to the Big 12 semifinals, the Mountaineers suddenly find themselves as a favorite again.
“It’s a little weird,” West Virginia guard Chase Harler said. “The second half of the season, I felt like we were a pretty dangerous team, because we didn’t have anything to lose.
“The first half of the season wasn’t great, but we’re playing more freely now. I guess being a favorite now is a better feeling than being completely the underdog, but we can’t take this tournament lightly.”
Grand Canyon (20-13) earned the Mountaineers’ respect in the first-round matchup after players began watching clips of the Antelopes.
“Personally, I feel like this is going to be one of the hardest games,” Harler said.
The winner advances to Monday’s quarterfinal round, against the winner of Coastal Carolina-Howard.
West Virginia’s experience in the CBI is not one of disappointment, but rather an extension of a season that began to show potential in late February.
“They wanted to keep playing,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to get them some experience.
“I thought defensively, we’ve been much better. We’re competing harder. By and large, we’ve ran decent offense.”
All of that has come once the Mountaineers’ core became a group of four freshmen, two first-year junior-college transfers and juniors Lamont West and Harler.
WVU got to that group only after dealing with injury issues to Sagaba Konate and Beetle Bolden — Bolden later transferred — as well as the dismissals of forwards Esa Ahmad and Wes Harris.
Freshman guard Trey Doomes announced he was transferring from West Virginia on Monday.
What’s left has taken a keen interest in continuing to play, as well as the CBI itself.
“Grand Canyon is a very good team. There are some other very competitive teams in there,” Harler said. “We’ll have to come out and play they way we’ve been playing. We all know it’s do or die now at this point. Kind of like the Big 12 [tournament] attitude, we’re just going to go out and play hard and compete to the best of our ability.”
Huggins said Grand Canyon, which took third in the Western Athletic Conference and lost in the finals against New Mexico State, would challenge WVU with its size.
Forwards Michael Finke and Alessandro Lever are both 6-foot-10 and both average more than 12 points per game.
Finke is a graduate transfer from Illinois, while Lever is a sophomore from Italy, who was the WAC’s Freshman of the Year last season.
Junior guard Carlos Johnson — a transfer from Washington — is 6-3 and led the Anetlopes in scoring at 14.6 points per game.
“They’ve been good all year,” Huggins said. “They have a little more momentum, but they’ve been good all year. They’re huge. They’re the biggest team we’ll play. There’s no doubt about that.”
FOLLOW on Twitter @bigjax3211