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Sweet 16 fixture (cont'd)

Posted: Saturday March 22, 2008 7:37PM; Updated: Saturday March 22, 2008 9:59PM
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"Two weeks ago, Cam Thoroughman thought about having [knee] surgery, and I said to him, 'If you can go, man, we need you,'" Huggins said. "That's the kind of guys that we have."

They're also the kind of guys that, four months ago, seemed completely ill-suited to play the hard-nosed style of basketball long practiced by former Cincinnati and Kansas State coach Huggins, who returned to his alma mater last spring to take over for the departed John Beilein. There were no Danny Fortson-Kenyon Marton-Jason Maxiell type bangers on the team, just a bunch of undersized wing-types who came to Morgantown to play in Beilein's patented five-out offense.

"They didn't come to West Virginia to do what we do," Huggins said. "Da'Sean Butler came because he wanted to play in a zone [defense]. He didn't want to chase people around."

Obviously, the Mountaineers have soaked up every bit of Huggins' influence, none more so than Alexander, who routinely outmuscled more touted Duke adversaries Kyle Singler and Lance Thomas on his way to the basket. He made just seven of 22 shots but got to the free-throw line eight times and drew enough attention to free up Ruoff and Mazzulla.

It may have come as a surprise to college-basketball followers to see West Virginia play so much more physically than the Blue Devils (the Mountaineers grabbed 19 offensive rebounds to Duke's seven), but not to Alexander, who was fairly blunt afterward in his assessment of the once second-ranked Blue Devils.

"Duke's a great team, but they definitely wouldn't dominate the Big East," he said. "I think the top six or seven teams [in the Big East] are definitely right on par with Duke. And the rest of them are right up there, too."

On paper, this was an upset, but many hoops followers likely predicted it following Duke's near-demise against Belmont. They may even have seen it coming when the bracket was announced -- after all, West Virginia has now won more NCAA tourney games the past four years (seven) than Duke (five).

Is the apocalypse on its way? More likely, it's a sign of things to come now that Huggins is in charge.

Previously, West Virginia's basketball "tradition" primarily consisted of the fabled Jerry West era, highlighted by a trip to the national championship game in 1959. The Mountaineers haven't enjoyed such sustained success as they are currently since the early '60s. (That it happens to coincide with an unprecedented three straight 11-win football seasons makes for especially good times in Morgantown.) Just wait until Huggins has a chance to bring in his own recruits.

"Duke's a great team with a great tradition and a great coach," Mazzulla said. "But Coach Huggins and the rest of us want to get to the point where people are worried about playing us, and we don't have to be worried to play other people."

Meanwhile, it might be time for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to figure out how his once-impeccable program suddenly strikes such little fear in teams like West Virginia. (That summer trip to Beijing couldn't be coming at a worse time.) The good news is, the Blue Devils made it one round farther than last year; the bad news is they were still a far cry from returning to their once familiar home, the Final Four, and it's going to take a significant talent upgrade to change that anytime soon.

"This team was a lot of fun and great to work with, a young group," said Krzyzewski. "A little bit undersized."

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For its part, West Virginia may run into trouble as well the first time it draws a tourney opponent with a dominant post presence. (Georgetown's Roy Hibbert made mincemeat of the Mountaineers in the Big East tournament semifinals.) In the meantime, Huggins may want to devise a new act to replace the Mountaineers' current tag of "deceptively good."

They're not going to sneak up on anyone anymore. After all, they've become college basketball's newest Sweet 16 fixture.

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