There is positive talk of post-season tournaments for West Virginia University.
Surprisingly, that talk has nothing to do with the football team.
While the boys on the gridiron have already accepted an invitation to the 2005 Toyota Gator Bowl, the 2004 WVU men’s basketball team is looking towards making a storybook run at the NCAA Tournament. Reaching college basketball’s elite tournament is something the team hasn’t accomplished since 1998. That year, they were one of the tourney’s Cinderella stories, making it all the way to the Sweet 16.
Getting to the tourney will not be an easy task. WVU plays in the Big East conference, considered by many to be one of the toughest in all of Division I. The Mountaineers’ out of conference schedule is no pushover, either: they play Louisiana State at Baton Rouge, and have a huge showdown against ACC powerhouse North Carolina State in Raleigh.
“We don’t want to be sitting there on bubble night saying, I wish we had played a tougher schedule,” said Mountaineer coach John Beilein. “We might not get to the bubble, but we won’t know unless we try.”
If Beilein’s coaching history is any indicator, then a tournament trip would seem likely. Beilein’s previous three coaching stops (Division II Lemoyne, Canisius, and Richmond), all made the NCAA tournament by the end of his fourth year as coach.
Finding positive things to say about West Virginia’s basketball program was once a struggle.
That was, before Beilein arrived.
The Mountaineers did not have a memorable 2001 campaign. They started the season strong, going 7-2, but finished the year with only eight wins. Their lone conference victory was unhappily sandwiched between two nine-game losing streaks.
According to Bruce Feldman of ESPN the Magazine, players lost respect for the coaching staff that year, led by Gale Catlett, a 2004 WVU Sports Hall of Fame Inductee. Things got especially bad after players saw several assistant coaches at local bars.
“How do you look at [coaches] the next day if you just saw them doing shots and hitting on some 20-year-old,” one player asked in Feldman’s article, Moving Mountains. Catlett resigned after that season. His replacement, Dan Dakich, was supposed to bring boot camp-like discipline to the ball team.
He bailed after only eight days.
Enter John Beilein.
“His game plans are innovative, and he instills fundamental play in all of his teams,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said of Beilein in 1998. “When you hired Beilein, you didn’t land some nightclub comic to get boffo ratings on his TV show; you got a hell of a coach.”
The Mountaineer basketball program Beilein inherited in April 2002 was a train wreck. They had no upperclassmen in the starting lineup, and only seven players on scholarship.
With the odds stacked higher than Spruce Knob, the team found a glimmer of success, finishing 14-15 and earning a spot in the Big East Tournament.
Year two under Beilein was rocky off the court. Forward Drew Schifino, a 2003 third-team All-Big East member, was suspended from the team in midseason after comments he made in the press. After skipping practice while on suspension, Schifino was subsequently dismissed. At the time, he was the team’s primary scoring threat, their only player with over 1000 career points.
Facing another considerable challenge, Beilein and his players survived the mid-season shakeup. With a regular season record of 15-11, the Mountaineers again qualified for the Big East Tournament, also earning an invitation to the post-season National Invitational Tournament (NIT).
In the NIT, the Mountaineers made some noise, defeating Kent State and Rhode Island before losing a close contest to Rutgers in the third round.
The season was a great improvement over Beilein’s first campaign. Junior center D’or Fischer demolished the school record for blocks in season with 124, and sophomore forward Pat Beilein, the coach’s son, set a school record with 32 consecutive free throws made.
Despite the successes of the 2003 campaign, the Mountaineers encountered another bump in the off-season. Freshmen Tyler Relph and Jerrah Young – two bench players who saw significant minutes during the season - transferred out of the program.
"Our basketball staff appreciated their efforts this past season and their honesty in wanting to transfer,” Beilein said in March. “While I am disappointed at their decision, I understand that it is a part of college basketball today.”
With their 10 remaining players, the Mountaineers made a trip to Europe in the summer of 2004. The European tour gave the Mountaineers a chance to play national teams from Germany, the Czech Republic, and Holland. On the tour, they welcomed the debuts of redshirted forward Brad Byerson and forward Mike Gansey, who was finally eligible to dress after transferring in 2003.
“The team took another stride toward being a bigger and better family,” said Beilein. “We have pretty good sense of chemistry on this team and a strong sense of commitment to each other.”
Gansey was the biggest surprise of the trip, leading the team in scoring with an average of 15.6 points.
“The scoring surprised me because I didn’t know what to expect,” said Gansey. “I didn’t know how much I’d play or how much they’d let me do. To play that well really boosted my confidence.”
Four other players also averaged over 10 points per game, including junior guard Johannes Herber. In 2003, Herber accumulated a 4.0 GPA, earning him Academic All-American recognition. Herber spent the majority of his summer playing for the German National Team, and will play a key role in WVU’s ’04 success.
“He can now play four positions,” said Beilein. “I love having a kid that can do that.”
In addition to upgrading Byerson and Gansey to active players, the 2004 Mountaineers also brought in freshmen Luke Bonner and Darrius Nicholls.
Bonner, a 7-foot, two time Gatorade High School Player of the Year in New Hampshire, averaged 14 points and 15 rebounds per game his senior season. He is one of three players on WVU’s roster that towers at higher than 6-feet 11-inches, including starting center D’or Fischer and junior Kevin Pittsnogle.
“We’re tall, we’re long, and we block shots,” said Rob Summer, another 7-footer who is ineligible to play this season after transferring from Penn State. “It’s a great asset to have three guys at that size who can shoot the lights out.”
Nicholls, a point guard, averaged almost 25 points per game his senior season and was named All Timesland Player of the Year by the Roanoke Times.
On paper, this Mountaineer team looks to be one of the best in Morgantown’s memory. A team that two years ago was one of the youngest in all of college basketball now has an abundance of veteran leadership.
“Everybody is going to be more involved this year,” said Pittsnogle. “I think the scoring is going to be more spread out. We have a lot of people that can score and are looking to score.”
The Mountaineers feature a deadeye perimeter shooting attack, which finished fourth in the Big East in 2003. In addition to their height under the basket, the Mountaineers are going to be a difficult team to shut down offensively.
“It’s a huge asset to have shooters on the perimeter,” said Bonner. “With shooters out there, I feel very comfortable moving the ball around. Who are teams going to leave?”
Beilein seems to have his system in place, and the Mountaineers hope to be the surprise team in the Big East in 2004.
“If anybody said that after two years we’d be over .500 with a couple of postseason wins, I’d say they were absolutely crazy,” said Beilein.
Insanity is in style these days, isn’t it?
About The Author
Jonathan Bentz, Marketing Intern
Advanced Internet (http://www.advancedtele.com)
Public Relations Major at West Virginia University (http://www.wvu.edu)