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Mountaineers prove contender status

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- You're not going to get West Virginia coach Bob Huggins to budge on the potential of this group, not one bit.

He won't bite. He continues to be coy about all topics related to West Virginia. But try as he might, he still can't hide from the fact that he may have something special on his hands.

The Mountaineers showed that quite well here in Anaheim, winning the 76 Classic on Sunday night with a convincing 84-66 victory over upstart Portland in the championship game at the Anaheim Convention Center.

No. 8 West Virginia entered the Anaheim Convention Center as the highest-ranked team in the loaded field -- and the Mountaineers should leave here as a real contender for the Final Four, let alone the Big East title with the other two contenders that proved themselves in November -- Syracuse in winning the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic and Villanova in claiming the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic.

"You guys said it was a down year in the Big East,'' Huggins said with his usual dry, low-talking wit. "I don't know what we'll do. If Cincinnati had won [the Maui Invitational], we'd probably have seven or eight teams in the top 25.''

The Mountaineers came here ripe for an upset with seasoned guard Joe Mazzulla still hurting from a left-shoulder injury and star forward Devin Ebanks out for personal reasons. WVU was also starting a JC transfer guard, Casey Mitchell, who hadn't played in big-time games yet.

Sure, they had potential Big East Player of the Year Da'Sean Butler, guard Darryl Bryant and undervalued scoring forward Kevin Jones, but this was still a team that hadn't gotten into a groove yet.

Well, it didn't take long.

Forget about the travel issues, going from a Tuesday night game against The Citadel in Charleston, W.Va., a bus ride to Cincinnati, a flight to LAX and then a late-morning game against Long Beach State. West Virginia practiced after the game on Thanksgiving Day and then dispatched a Texas A&M team in the semifinals that ultimately left here with third place and a likely Top 25 spot.

"On and off the court, everyone on the team is way tougher than I thought they would be,'' Butler said. "At the games, everyone is mentally tougher and never complains. I would say we just came together as a team more as opposed to being individual players.''

Ebanks proved he was worth the wait by scoring 14 points and picking the Aggies' Donald Sloan clean at the top of the key for two steals to seal the win.

Nursing a bruised right hand with ice after the championship victory, Ebanks said he's at about 90 percent since he hasn't practiced much. And that's exactly why Huggins is reluctant to anoint the Mountaineers as some finished product. Ebanks has practiced only two days since his return, not including the game-day shootarounds while in Anaheim.

"We've got to get Devin back to being Devin,'' said Huggins as to what could help separate the Mountaineers. But "we're deeper than we've ever been -- no question.''

It showed against the Pilots, who were very sound in wins over UCLA and No. 16 Minnesota en route to the title game. That wasn't the case against West Virginia. The Mountaineers said before the game that they wanted Portland to put the ball on the court rather than get free looks. The Pilots shot 5-of-24 on 3s after making 19 in the first two games. Portland also couldn't get many second shots and gave up plenty of offensive rebounds.

"I was hoping that they weren't going to be better in person than we saw on video, but they are really impressive,'' Portland coach Eric Reveno said. "They are a tough team that gets in there and really battles for the ball and competes.''

Huggins was working his players throughout the tournament, never letting them get complacent. But the players know better. They fully understand what they're capable of, especially with Butler and Ebanks and a complimentary player like Jones, who scored 17 points against the Pilots.

"I felt like we played like a top-eight team here,'' Bryant said. "You can see we have a lot of weapons as long as we play together. I always thought we'd be good, but I didn't know we'd be this good, this early in the season. Everybody is clicking now.''

The Mountaineers have a tough slate ahead, with Ole Miss (Dec. 23), a road game at Seton Hall to open the Big East (Dec. 26), suddenly strong Marquette (Dec. 29) and a monster New Year's Day showdown game at Purdue. And in case the Big East schedule wasn't tough enough, the Mountaineers step outside one more time in late January to host Ohio State (Jan. 23).

The Big East was smart to match up Connecticut and Pitt on the final game last season (yes, Louisville won the title outright, but all three earned No. 1 seeds). And the league did something correct again by pitting West Virginia at Villanova to end the regular season on March 6.

The Mountaineers certainly have the talent to make that finale truly matter. Huggins knows talented teams. He had plenty at Cincinnati. He's been to a Final Four. He's been close before, too.

"I don't think I've ever had two more skilled forwards than what we have,'' Huggins said of Butler and Ebanks. "We've been much more talented than this group, way more. But we just got to do a better job of playing together at both ends of the floor.''

Huggs cracked a bit of a smile before he exited the building. It took a while, but it finally emerged. He'll continue to play down the expectations and the successes, knowing full well that he has a team that could force him to shout out loud the superlatives come March.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.