On The Road with John Rooke: West Virginia

If. It's a little word. But right now, it has big meaning for the future of the Providence College basketball team.

After dropping a 64-48 decision to 12th ranked West Virginia in Morgantown on Tuesday night, much of the post-game discussion centered on "if." What if the Friars could turn out like the Mountaineers? What if the young players stick it out, take some lumps (like WVU did three years ago – remember the Big East tournament in 2003 – a 73-50 PC win when their seniors were freshmen)? What if our guys turn out like their guys have? Is it possible? Only time will tell. But the intrigue is in place, and the possibilities exist.

This game with the Mountaineers may have presented one of the tougher match-ups the Friars will see this season. West Virginia runs their offense well, and it is a style that is very difficult to defend. You want to guard against their perimeter offense, so you're not torched for 20 three-pointers like Marquette was last Saturday… but at the same time, WVU has developed enough savvy to know how to attack inside as well.

Kevin Pittsnogle, for all of the jokes about him three years ago, has developed an inside presence to go along with his outside prowess. Mike Gansey may very well play in the NBA, even though he doesn't look physically imposing. J. D. Collins, Joe Herber and Patrick Beilein all contribute; all play their roles to perfection. Stop one or two of them, the others make you pay. This is why they're ranked, and why they may very well end up advancing again in March.

The initial pace of the game was to PC's advantage – measured steps, patience on offense, try to create mismatches and push the ball down low against WVU's 1-3-1 zone. It did work for awhile, but the Mountaineers began to extend their pressure outward, causing the Friars to start further away from the basket. The result was PC turnovers, 18 in all, that became too much to overcome…and directly contributed to 19 West Virginia points. Add to that the general frustration of not being able to take advantage of a relative "off" night of long-distance shooting by WVU (6-29 from three-point range, about half of the 11 3's they average per game), and the Friars were left shaking their heads, disappointed they could not strike when the chance was there.

This trip was one of those rare instances when the team did not return home between back-to-back road games. After playing at Notre Dame on Saturday, the team bussed to Chicago that night. Sunday was largely spent together, practicing at DePaul (the Ray Meyer Athletic Center on campus, while the Blue Demons were playing Rutgers) and going to dinner as a team at Harry Caray's.

Monday, the team practiced at Moody Bible Institute…a rather small, unassuming school not far from downtown Chicago, which hosts the NBA pre-draft camp workouts every spring. Coach Welsh had been to the campus previously with Ryan Gomes in '04. Following Monday's practice, the team took a commercial flight to Pittsburgh, then another bus ride into Morgantown. Since classes don't start at PC until Wednesday, rather than a "start and stop, back and forth" approach to traveling, it was decided to keep together, stay together, play, practice and hang out together. A chartered flight (two hours later than originally scheduled) took the team home after the game Tuesday.

Three observations during practices over the weekend… one, Herb Hill has most definitely improved his free throw shooting, as he connected on 34 of 40 at one point on Sunday. He is working on putting more arc into his shot, releasing the ball so that it gets good rotation, and squaring his feet at the line. As he brings the ball on the way up, Herb has a tendency to lean to his left, which throws his entire stance out of kilter. The coaching staff, and Joe Hassett, have worked with him on bringing the ball up straight before releasing. Hill did not play much against WVU, as their constant ball-movement made it difficult for him, and the team, to match-up properly.

Two… it is definitely weird to see Geoff McDermott hobble around with a boot on his foot and struggle with crutches, then discard them to jump out onto the practice floor and once again become his physical self. His teammates gave him a little ribbing when he took a wheelchair ride coming off of the plane in Pittsburgh, and he just smiled that big, innocent smile all the way through it! He has been given the green light to continue, but it is clear he is in some discomfort when he sits and has a chance to think about it. He is also not quite the same when out on the floor during a game… he's not tentative, but his early-season aggression isn't as evident. The bruise on the top of his left foot is not a stress fracture, but the boot will stay on while he's not playing as a precaution.

And three…if you've wondered (as I have) how Sharaud Curry can get his little "floater" of a jump shot off while in the lane amongst the big guys… the answer is simple. "I've been shooting that shot ever since I started playing," Curry says, "and once I hit the first one, I get into kind of a rhythm with it." He practices shooting that high arcing, floating jumper at every practice, and even though his bigger teammates know it's coming, he still shoots it. And most of the time, he makes it. It's a big weapon for a small guard to have.

The Friars are now a little past the halfway point in this season, but the opportunity remains for improvement on the floor. Starting with three of your first four Big East games on the road, with freshmen in your lineup, isn't how anyone on the PC staff would have drawn it up to begin the year, but it is what it is. A home game with DePaul on Saturday will be welcomed, as will a better effort (and result) on the floor.

If these young Friars keep their heads up, and their focus straight, that light at the end of the tunnel may not be an oncoming train after all. Just ask the Mountaineers… they've been where the Friars are traveling.

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