It's A Long Way To The Top

Watching another fine season of NCAA basketball come to a close, culminating in yet another wonderful edition of "March Madness," an undeniable conclusion emerges... it's a long way to the top.

With the crowning of the NCAA national champion, it is appropriate to reflect back on the season that was and take stock of the Mountaineer program. For our Mountaineers, the season was obviously a rebuilding one -- perhaps the biggest rebuilding job in the history of the program -- coming as it did on the heels of the worst season ever. A near .500 finish, even with the seemingly inevitable first round loss in the Big East tournament, is regarded as a successful season -- and legitimately so, given the ruined state of the program Coach Beilein and staff took over and the youth, inexperience and general lack of "Big East-quality" strength and power they inherited.

None of which is intended to demean. To the contrary, the coaching staff clearly demonstrated their ability to teach and prepare, and the young men played with a sense of selflessness combined with a never-quit attitude.

Certainly, the victories over Florida and Tennessee were the high marks of the season -- coming as they did early in the season when the team executed Beilein's motion and passing offense almost flawlessly. But as the season wore on, the team's general lack of strength became all too apparent. Usually, you would expect a team to improve as the season goes along, but such was not the case for the 2002-2003 Mountaineers.

Their passing steadily deteriorated, turnovers per game increased and their shooting percentage dropped. Such is the result when you are undermanned in the rough and tumble Big East, where guard play and interior strength are coveted equally. They simply ran out of gas.

It's a long way to the top...

What does the future hold for our Mountaineers? None of us has a crystal ball -- at least, not an accurate one -- so who can say for sure? But certainly, there is much effort and hard work yet to be accomplished. The players must get stronger and gain experience in Beilein's system. The coaching staff must adjust their recruiting to meet the needs of competing in the Big East and that means a dominating Big East-style Center, even if that means only four players on the court can hit the trey-bomb.

Yet, even if these are accomplished, there is still the rest of the powerful Big East to contend with -- where this season all four NCAA tournament teams reached the "sweet sixteen," the Syracuse Orangemen won the national championship (in their third attempt), and St. Johns and Georgetown faced each other in the NIT finals.

The traditional Big East powers -- UConn, Syracuse, Georgetown, etc., will continue to populate their rosters plumb full of high school All-Americans. Same goes for the traditional top 20 powers. But let's admit, like it or not, that WVU hasn't been a national power for quite some time. When last did WVU reach the Final 4? How many times since the fabled Jerry West era has WVU reached the "sweet sixteen?" How many times since that glorious era have they reached the semi-finals of the NIT? You can count the sum total of all the above on one hand without using the same finger twice.

It's a long way to the top...

WVU, and most of the programs which strive to fill-out the remainder of the 65 team field of the NCAA tournament and the other 32 in the NIT, attract one, sometimes two and rarely three "star" players to their roster at any given time. They are at an immediate disadvantage against the likes of Duke or Kentucky. The wonderful thing about March Madness is that a single player can indeed carry a team for a game or two. But rarely can they carry a team through the 6-game streak necessary to run the tournament.

It's a long way to the top...

Now, you might think I'm a pessimist or just out to stir the pot. You would be wrong. I'm actually excited about this program, about this coaching staff and where I can see the program heading. But as much as I would like to see it return to national prominence -- become a consistent top 20 performer -- I realize that there is still much to accomplish along the way; much that might not be accomplished. So I temper my expectations with this one undeniable fact -- a fact which is not just specific to West Virginia:

It's a Long Way to the Top [If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll.]


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