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The Morehead State Eagles went through one of the most difficult stretches of any mid-major team to qualify for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
The Ohio Valley Conference champion may not be a popular upset selection as a No. 14 seed, but it has the capabilities to scare the third-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers.
West Virginia played one of the toughest schedules of any March Madness team in the Big 12, but it faltered at the end of its league slate with three losses in its last four games.
Additionally, Bob Huggins does not have the best history in the Big Dance with the Mountaineers, and he could be bound for another early exit.
The Virginia Cavaliers could be threatened with an early elimination as well since they face a dangerous Ohio Bobcats team that could break down some of their defensive strengths.
Ohio has one of the best mid-major guards in Jason Preston, and it could be poised to knock off the 2019 champion after dominating the MAC tournament.
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Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Morehead State looks like a completely different team than the one that suffered blowout losses to the Kentucky Wildcats and Ohio State Buckeyes to begin nonconference play.
The Eagles went 17-3 in OVC play and have a single loss since the calendar flipped over to 2021. Three of their last four wins came against the two other top teams in the OVC.
Morehead State outlasted the 26-win Belmont Bruins in overtime on February 27, and then it dominated the league’s top seed by 15 points to earn the first automatic bid into the Big Dance.
In between those victories, Morehead State ground out a three-point win over the Eastern Kentucky Colonels, who finished with 22 victories.
Johni Broome, DeVon Cooper and Skyelar Potter all average over 10 points and at least five rebounds per game. Each member of the trio shoots over 42 percent from the field.
In West Virginia’s last three losses, it failed to contain the top scorers on the Oklahoma State Cowboys and Baylor Bears. The Bears put up 94 in a March 2 overtime win, while Avery Anderson and Cade Cunningham both achieved success against the Mountaineers in back-to-back Oklahoma State victories.
If the Mountaineers do not contain Morehead State’s top producers, they could be set for a surprise exit against a team that shoots over 3 percent better from the field.
West Virginia is battle-tested and could use the experience from 10 Top 25 battles within the Big 12 to go on a deep run in March.
However, Morehead State should not be intimidated by West Virginia’s talent level since it recently beat its top foes in the OVC.
The Eagles could take advantage of the poor results West Virginia has had to start the tournament under Huggins. The Mountaineers were taken down in the round of 64 in 2016 and won their 2017 opener by six points.
If West Virginia does not come out strong, it could be susceptible to another disappointing result in the Big Dance.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Ohio is a much more popular upset pick than Morehead State because of the situation it was put in.
The Bobcats reeled off three consecutive wins in which they scored over 80 points in the MAC tournament. The final two victories came against the league’s top two seeds.
Additionally, Ohio will have an advantage in familiarity with its surroundings in Indianapolis. Virginia will travel on Friday because of safety protocols following a positive COVID-19 test that knocked it out of the ACC tournament.
Ohio should feel comfortable with plenty of practice time on its side, and it will likely go into the matchup as the looser squad with nothing to lose.
Although Virginia is the reigning NCAA tournament champion, its style of play has not always translated to the Big Dance. All you need to do is look at the upset against the 16th-seeded UMBC Retrievers in 2018.
Preston leads a collection of five Ohio players who average over 10 points per game. He shoots 53 percent from the field and 40.8 from three-point range.
If Preston is guarded tightly, he could use his distribution skills (7.2 assists per game) to pick apart the holes in the Virginia defense.
The Cavaliers have not reached the 75-point mark since their January 25 win over the Syracuse Orange. If they fail to contain Preston and Co., they may not have enough firepower to keep up with the Bobcats.
Of course, Virginia could use its defense to silence Ohio since it held its last five opponents to under 70 points.
But the circumstances in play could prevent Virginia from being at its best, especially in the first half, and that could be the perfect time for Ohio’s guards to gain confidence and build an advantage that it can hold on to in the second half.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.
Statistics obtained from ESPN.com.