West Virginia and Marshall forced back together in NCAAs

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Hide the couches and cue up some John Denver.

More than 2,000 miles away from home, way out on the West Coast with few familiar faces around, West Virginia and Marshall will be forced back together on the basketball court. The venue is the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The reward is a spot in the regional semifinals and a date with top-seeded Villanova.

Those are the particulars. But what the game signifies and what it means to the home state of the schools goes far deeper. And yes, the winning school might even celebrate by sacrificing a few couches in celebration come Sunday night.

“You have to understand our state. Doesn’t matter who we would be playing there’s going to be almost everybody in West Virginia either watching it on TV, listening to it on the radio,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “That’s our state. We’re so different. We don’t have professional teams and we really only have two major colleges.”

The game will be watched by basketball fans from Huntington to Morgantown. It features some of the most important figures in the history of basketball in the state with Huggins on one sideline and Dan D’Antoni on the other as the head coach at Marshall.

But aside from the stakes and the in-state proximity, what makes this matchup notable is the fact it was the NCAA which created the situation where this was possible. Marshall’s first NCAA Tournament victory upsetting Wichita State in the first round on Friday only rejuvenated the conversation about why the Mountaineers and Thundering Herd — the only two Division I universities in the state — no longer play every season.

“You will have to ask West Virginia about that. I’m not going to go just play at Morgantown, so after that ask West Virginia,” D’Antoni said. “I think it should be played. One time their place, one time our place, one time a neutral place, whatever.

“We’re a Division I school. You’ve got to treat us like one. I would love to play. I’ll needle them a little bit. I see somebody I can needle, so I’m going to needle them a little bit. We are playing West Virginia University. I coach Marshall University where West Virginians play. We’ll just leave it at that.”

Marshall and West Virginia used to meet yearly. From 1977-2015 it was an annual event in the state. And beginning with the 1991-92 season, any homecourt advantage was taken out of the discussion as the teams met on a neutral floor in Charleston.

But as West Virginia’s national profile has increased, the Mountaineers no longer believed Marshall was worth their time. Despite pleas from fans and even the brief discussion of state legislative action to mandate the teams play, there appears to be no resolution coming soon that would restart the matchup.

“I don’t want to get into the reasons,” Huggins said on Friday after the matchup was known. “They can come to Morgantown anytime they want to play. We would love for them to.”

Marshall gladly plays up its status of being more of the state’s school when it comes to its basketball roster. The Herd have seven players from the state on the roster, including star Jon Elmore and freshman Jarrod West, whose father by the same name holds the distinction of hitting one of the most memorable shots in West Virginia’s NCAA Tournament history 20 years ago.

“Us being from West Virginia allows us to play with more of a chip on our shoulder and play with that extra edge and competitive nature,” West said.

West Virginia has just three players from the state on its roster and of those only Logan Routt saw playing time in the first-round win over Murray State.

D’Antoni was asked Saturday if the kind of exposure his program is receiving because of the tournament would make him reevaluate the kinds of players he recruits.

“I’m going to recruit West Virginians. I think that’s the way college basketball ought to be,” he said. “I think that’s what it is. You are representing your state and if you’re not looking at your state first that’s a mistake. I think I can find kids that I can coach up if they’re willing to be coached and we look for coachable kids. I think I can get them to a level that they can compete against anybody.”

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Tyler Barker is currently the News Director and Digital Content Manager for WOAY-TV. He was promoted to this job in Mid-November. He still will fill in on weather from time to time. You can follow Tyler on Facebook and Twitter @wxtylerb. Have any news tips or weather questions? Email him at tbarker@woay.com