Ask someone what they know about West Virginia basketball and they might mention Jerry West or Hot Rod Hundley.
West and Hundley starred in the heyday of West Virginia basketball 40 years ago and are still the top two scorers in school history. Hundley played from 1954 to 1957, while West followed, from 1957 to 1960. Behind West, the current general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Mountaineers made it all the way to the 1959 national championship game, where they lost to California 71-70.That was the last time West Virginia even made it as far as the NCAA Sweet 16, which is the position the Mountaineers find themselves now as they prepare to meet No. 7-ranked Utah Thursday at 5:55 p.m. MST at the Arrowhead Pond.
The winner moves to Saturday's West region final against the winner of the Arizona-Maryland game at 1:40 p.m. MST.
The Mountaineers are an unlikely entrant into the Sweet 16. They started off as the No. 10 seed in the West and knocked off Temple by 30 points in the first round before shocking No. 2 seed Cincinnati 75-74 on Jarrod West's 23-foot banked 3-pointer in the final second.
Between 1959 and this year, West Virginia had played in 12 NCAA tournaments, winning six games and losing 10 and never got past the first round.
The Mountaineers start five seniors, led by 6-6 forward Damian Owens, who averages 16.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Other starters include guards Adrian Pledger (12.2 ppg) and West (10.4 ppg), forward Brent Solheim (8.6 ppg) and center Brian Lewin (7.5 ppg). Another senior, guard Greg Jones, is the top reserve off the bench, with a 12.1 scoring average.
"They've got such balanced scoring, there's no one guy we've got to stop," said Utah coach Rick Majerus. "We need to keep them off the boards - they're very good on the boards."
The Mountaineers outboard their opponents by 3.1 rebounds per game, unlike the Utes' last opponent, Arkansas, which was outboarded by a similar margin.
Majerus is well aware that the Mountaineers' No. 10 seed in the West regional is a deceiving one. They were ranked in the top 25 most of the season, climbing as high as No. 15 in early February. However three straight losses prior to the NCAA tournament, dropped their stock enough to fall to a No. 10 seed. So far they've disproved their seeding.
Like the two previous Utah opponents, West Virginia is a pressing team, which could be good news or bad news depending on how you look at it. Sure the Utes gave up 12 turnovers to San Francisco and 20 to Arkansas, but on the whole, the Utah handled the fullcourt pressure well, by throwing the ball over the top of the press or letting Andre Miller break it by himself.
"Their press will be different," said Majerus. "They're bigger and they'll use more zone presses and do more trapping in the halfcourt area."
The Mountaineers are coached by Gale Catlett, a West Virginia graduate, who has a 390- 215 record at the school in 20 seasons. He also coached at Cincinnati for six years before that.
UTE NOTES: The Utes arrived here late Tuesday morning and held a practice at a local gym in the afternoon. They were required to hold an open practice at The Pond Wednesday afternoon . . . The Mountaineers came straight to Anaheim from Boise because school was out last week and it wasn't worth going home for the first day or two of the next qurter. They went to Disneyland on Sunday . . . The regional at The Pond, which seats 17,533, has been sold out for almost a year now. Approximately 8,000 tickets made available to the public went on sale last March 17 and were gone in two weeks . . . Utah holds a perfect 5-0 mark against West Virginia in games dating back to the 1947 NIT when the Utes won 64-62. The last meeting between the two schools was in 1977 when the Utes won 74-70 at home.