Keeping Things Light

After a series of lethargic practices leading up to a loss to Marquette in the second round of the Big East Conference Tournament, West Virginia players expected the worst from their notoriously-tough head coach, Bob Huggins, upon returning to Morgantown. What they got instead was a welcome surprise.

On top of the overwhelming sense of disappointment that was evident in the Mountaineer locker room following that Wednesday night loss, there was clearly a sense of dread about what was to come.

Senior forward Cam Thoroughman voiced that concern in the moments after the defeat, saying he knew WVU would head back to Morgantown early and go to work with "a not-too-happy guy" in Huggins.

And, as the old saying goes, when Huggins ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

"We thought we were going to come in and it was going to be a dreadful kind of practice, you know?" fellow senior John Flowers said Sunday night, just after learning that West Virginia had earned a No. 5 seed in the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament.

But instead, the Mountaineer players got a bit of a reprieve. They traveled back into town Thursday, had Friday off and came back to the Coliseum for a Saturday practice, still expecting the worst.

It may have helped that Huggins wasn't around (Flowers said assistant coach Billy Hahn ran practice as the head man was apparently on the road recruiting), but they were still surprised at just how wrong they were.

"We had a fun practice on Saturday, just to get our minds off the loss in the Big East Tournament and stuff, just to get enthusiastic and get good vibes about going into the NCAA Tournament," Flowers said.

"We got a lot of shots in, played some shooting games. We ran free throw games, where if you miss a free throw, you've got to run for it -- stuff like that. In my opinion, we all needed that, just to get our spirits up before the tournament and stuff. I think everyone was down from the loss and playing a bad game at Madison Square Garden."

Hahn and Huggins don't exactly seem like the leading candidates to keep things light at this time of year, but there was a combination of factors that led to the decision to do so upon return to Morgantown, according to the head coach.

"What are you going to do [in practices before Selection Sunday]?" Huggins asked rhetorically. "What are you going to prepare for? You don't have any idea what style you've got to prepare for. You don't have any idea whether they'll throw it to bigs or if they're guard-oriented. You don't have any idea if they play fast or if they play slow. So what are you going to do? What are you going to do offensively?"

"I've said this before, and I think he's been great for us, but when you've got [walk-on] Craig Carey playing power forward [in practice], that's not a real test for Kevin Jones," he continued. "It's hard for us to get a lot out of what we're trying to do offensively because we don't have enough bigs, you know what I mean, to simulate anything anybody is going to do [against us]. That's been a problem for us. You take our starters and our other guys are basically...Deniz [Kilicli] and three guards."

And there was one other reason for both the lighter practices in Morgantown, and perhaps for some of the poor efforts in workouts before the Marquette game -- a factor that was not revealed until Huggins spoke of it shortly after his team's NCAA Tournament destination was revealed.

"We were sick," Huggins explained. "Cam was really sick. Joe [Mazzulla] was a little bit sick in New York. Cam was really sick. So we needed to get guys healed up and healthy. We did enough [in practices], I thought, to keep our legs.

"No, [practices before the Marquette game] weren't very good. But then again, a lot of that is we were sick. We had guys that were sick. Deniz was sick. Cam was sick. Jonnie [West] was sick. When you've got nine guys, and you get some guys that are sick and pale and don't feel very good, it's hard to have a good practice."

None of Huggins' players complained of feeling under the weather before or after the Marquette game or even on Selection Sunday night. But Flowers sent a message out on Monday morning via Twitter, saying he was on his way to lift weights despite feeling poorly and dealing with a "sore throat [and] runny nose."

Perhaps the warm weather in Tampa, Fla., (where forecasts predict temperatures in the high 70s to low 80s and zero percent chance of precipitation for the duration of WVU's stay in town) could get players feeling a bit better both physically and mentally.

"We were hoping for it," said forward Kevin Jones. "The last two years we've gone to places that are kind of cold and dreary a little bit [Minneapolis in 2009, Buffalo and Syracuse in 2010]. Just to get somewhere in the sun, I think that will definitely change our spirits ... Tampa will be a pretty special place to play in the tournament, I think."

But even if the players still aren't quite 100 percent physically, they do seem to be in a better psychological state than some might have expected.

"[It's been] more of a bonding experience, just getting the old team feel back, the team chemistry back -- which we didn't have in the Garden ... I think that has came back into the picture and everybody is in good spirits, so I think we'll have a nice run in this tournament," Jones said.

"We're less stressed because we haven't been preparing for anybody, so we've been working on ourselves internally as a team, and everybody has been in good spirits and had high energy ... I think [lighter practices] worked well for us as far as getting that tension and stress off our shoulders. We're just relying on each other and playing as a team again."

But with Selection Sunday now in the books and the Mountaineers knowing their first opponent will be either Alabama-Birmingham or Clemson on Thursday, the time for fun and games has largely passed.

It's back to business this week, and coaches are falling back on a familiar mantra to keep the players focused on the task at hand.

"Coach Hahn ... talked about what we need to do to win. He broke it down into six games, 240 minutes," Flowers said, explaining that the team's lofty goals of a season ago haven't changed this time around. "That's basically our theme for the tournament. That's always been our theme for the tournament since my freshman year. We just have to focus on that."


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