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West Virginia vs. Marshall is the spiciest March Madness matchup

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There is no love lost between the in-state foes, whose annual series came to an abrupt end three years ago.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-West Virginia vs Murrary State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

On paper, there might be more alluring second round matchups in the NCAA tournament than fifth-seeded West Virginia taking on No. 13 seed Marshall. As far as storylines are concerned, the Mountaineers vs. the Thundering Herd will take a backseat to no game.

Here’s a quick primer on why this is going to be so much fun, and why it’s going to mean so much to so many people.

The “Capital Classic Controversy”

Marshall and West Virginia, two Mountain State schools separated by 157 miles, used to square off on the hardwood every year. Between 1978 and 2016, the ‘Eers and Herd played one game a year. Beginning in 1992, that game took place in the state capital city of Charleston, which led to the series ultimately being dubbed “The Chesapeake Energy Capital Classic” (formerly “The Toyota Capital Classic”).

In early 2016, the brass at West Virginia made it known that they had little interest in continuing to play Marshall if the games were played in Charleston. The reason? Mountaineer fans had to travel much farther than their in-state counterparts, they still draw more fans at the game, but they have to split the game profits with Marshall 50/50.

For West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins, there’s another reason: He never thought his team got much out of playing Marshall, and he was rarely hesitant to say as much publicly.

This mindset let to something of a brouhaha following the 2014 meeting between the teams. In his postgame press conference, Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni expressed his desire for the programs to meet twice a year, one game at each school. He went on to say that West Virginia not agreeing to the proposal would be a sign that WVU was afraid.

“They back out now, they’re afraid of us,” D’Antoni said. “We’re coming back.”

Huggins responded to the comment later that week on his radio show.

“He can say I’m afraid all he wants,” Huggins said. “I’ve probably coached 1,116 more games than he has. It’s ridiculous to say something like that. We’re afraid. Yeah, we’re really afraid. It’s crazy, you know? We’ve beaten Duke. Mike [Krzyzewski] is a pretty good coach. Was I afraid? I wasn’t afraid playing Duke. Played [Syracuse’s Jim] Boeheim. We used to play him every year. Great coach. I wasn’t afraid. Why would I be afraid?

“The thing that’s most laughable, and I’ll get in trouble for saying it I know, but I’m to the point in my life where I really don’t care. How about this? ‘We’re back.’ That was their sixth loss in a row. ‘We’re back.’ ‘We’re back’ all right. Honestly it’s laughable.”

So, yeah, there’s some stuff here.

The two teams played the next year in 2015, with West Virginia cruising to an 86-68 victory. They have not played since.

The abrupt end of the Capital Classic infuriated Marshall fans. It also drew the ire of some elected officials within the state of West Virginia. Included in that group is State Sen. Mike Woelfel, who went so far as to submit a bill that would have mandated the two teams to play at least one game a year.

And still, nothing has worked when it comes to forcing the Mountaineers to share the court with the Thundering Herd again. Until now.

West Virginia will enter Sunday’s game leading the all-time series with Marshall, 33-11. The Mountaineers have won the last five meetings.

The Football Angle

The bad blood between Marshall and West Virginia goes beyond basketball. Four years before the Mountaineers cut off the basketball series with the Thundering Herd, they also ended the in-state football series.

In 2006, Marshall and West Virginia agreed to a seven-year football series that was affectionately dubbed the “Friends of Coal Bowl.” Many believed WVU was hesitant to agree to the series, but received significant political pressure from Charleston. The Mountaineers wound up winning all seven meeting, running their all-time record against Marshall to 12-0.

Despite then-Gov. Joe Manchin (not the same Governor who tried to get Marshall football coach Doc Holliday fired and replaced by one of his longtime friends) declaring in 2010 that the football series would continue for “another five years,” no new deal was ever reached between the two programs.

When the Friends of Coal Bowl series ended in 2012, West Virginia said it was open to discussing a renewal so long as it was a “two-for-one” arrangement where the Mountaineers would receive a pair of home games. When Marshall reportedly balked at the idea, then-WVU athletic director Oliver Luck had no problem turning the page.

“I think it’s been a nice series,” Luck said, “But our fan base kind of shrugs their shoulders. My responsibility is to my school and not necessarily to the state or the economic impact of the game. At this point there’s no intent on my part to engage in any discussions because we’re still dropping teams because of the Big 12 move, We have to get through that and see where we are with Pitt and Virginia Tech because I would argue they have a much longer history with us, with WVU, than Marshall.”

Marshall fans still clamor for the game. West Virginia fans still claim the risk would always outweigh the reward.

The West Family

One of the reasons for Marshall’s success this season has been the play of freshman guard Jarrod West. A two-time All-State performer out of Notre Dame High School in Clarksburg, W.V., West is averaging 7.9 points and 2.6 assists per game for the Herd in his first college season.

If that name sounds familiar to basketball fans in the state of West Virginia, there’s a reason.

West’s father, Jarrod West Sr., is the head coach at Notre Dame High School. He was also a four-year contributor for the West Virginia Mountaineers who hit one of the most famous shots in program history during the 1998 NCAA tournament.

That was a second round stunner that sent the No. 10 seed Mountaineers past second-seeded Cincinnati and into the Sweet 16. Now, 20 years later, West’s son is trying to take his own double-digit seed to the Sweet 16. To do so, he’ll have to go through his dad’s alma mater.

Just another storyline in the juiciest second round matchup of the Big Dance.