When Bob Huggins and his Mountaineers head into tiny McDonough Arena on Tuesday night to play former Big East foe Georgetown, the West Virginia head coach will be in unusual territory. In 29 years as a head coach, he has only been in this situation four seasons. Although if you ask him, I'm guessing he would say that's four seasons too many.
For only the fourth time in his illustrious coaching career, Bob Huggins will be walking the sidelines in the NIT tournament.
Before his incredible run of making the NCAA tournament for every season from 1992-2005 (cue Seth Greenberg's jaw hitting the floor), Huggins took his first two Cincinnati teams to the NIT. In his first year, 1990, his Bearcats won their opening round game against Bowling Green and fell in the second round to DePaul. The next season was again a second round exit, this time to current Big 12 member Oklahoma after a blowout win over Ball State.
The season after Cincinnati's 1991 NIT season? All Huggy did was take the Bearcats to the Final Four. He downplayed the impact the NIT had on the squad during his weekly teleconference, stating that only two players from the NIT days were on the Final Four team. It does show that there is a precedent however to go from being a NIT team one year to a nationally relevant team the next.
In his only season at Kansas State in 2007 before coming to West Virginia, Huggins took the Wildcats to the NIT, with another second round exit to DePaul. That brought his career NIT record to 3-3.
Huggins sees the positive impact the NIT can have.
"Any time you get more practice with your guys, any time you get more game experience, I think it's gonna help. We want to win and end the season on a positive note and kind of use it as a springboard for next year."
Although Huggins said his 1991 NIT trip didn't really affect his 1992 Final Four team, he did say that he knows other teams have used the NIT to build onto the next year. West Virginia before Huggins arrived found that out first hand. In 2004, the Mountaineers made an appearance in the NIT, losing in the third round to Rutgers. Everyone knows what happened the following year. The Eers under John Beilein made a magical run to the Elite 8, defeating Wake Forest in the second round in Chris Paul's final collegiate game, and then later on in the tournament blew a 13 point halftime lead to Louisville to miss out on a trip to the Final Four. The world would never be the same and "Pittsnogled" became an official word in the English language. (Ok maybe not. But it should be.)
In 2007, the NIT champion West Virgina (spelling error intended) team gained invaluable experience from the tournament. They finished the tournament with three close, character building wins, capped off with a 78-73 victory over Clemson in the championship game in Madison Square Garden. That team compares somewhat favorably to this year's version of the Mountaineers. In John Beilein's final season in Morgantown, the 2007 Mountaineers finished the regular season at 22-9 and 9-7 in Big East conference play. They were led by senior Frank Young, but like the 2014 Mountaineers had a couple young guys with major potential by the names of Joe Alexander and Da'Sean Butler. 2007 was a transition year much like this one. Alexander was a sophomore and Butler was a freshman, and both were 1 year (Alexander) and 2 years (Butler) away from reaching their full potential. Those guys followed up the NIT championship with a Sweet 16 run in 2008, with an oh so sweet victory in the second round over the Duke Blue Devils. It's safe to assume that both NIT runs in 2004 and (especially) 2007 played important roles in the success of the 2005 and 2008 teams. There's plenty of reason to believe the NIT experience this year can produce similar success next season.
Bob Huggins isn't used to playing in a tournament that doesn't "matter" nationally. But as the Mountaineers have seen in the past, experience in the NIT can help grow a program into greatness. It may not be something he cares too much about, but winning the NIT would be a first for Coach Huggins and just another ribbon to add to his Hall of Fame resume. In the more immediate future, though, it may be just what his current team needs to next season become great.