In addition to John Flowers' videos of the Mountaineers behind the scenes, players got a great deal of enjoyment out of interview sessions with the media. Jokes, laughter and wisecracks and barbs were evident throughout WVU's run to the Final Four, and provided a revealing glimpse of the personalities behind the players on the floor.
This year, with a change in personnel (along with a few more losses) that side of the team wasn't as evident. Fewer jokes (and no videos) seemed to indicate that this team's demeanor had changed somewhat. That isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself, of course. As players depart and new ones come on board, there's going to be a natural evolution in the relationships and dynamics of any group. It wouldn't be fair to expect things to be exactly the same from year-to-year, so it wasn't really a surprise when some of the antics of a year ago seemed absent this year.
While it may not be as pronounced, however, it turns out that a lot of the fun is still there – albeit hidden from day-to-day view. The Mountaineers didn't get a chance to show it during their brief stay in the Big East tournament, but in Tampa, it began peeking out the day before the Mountaineers' win over Clemson and came to the floor in post-game interviews.
Initially, it began with senior guard Joe Mazzulla admonishing a WVU beat reporter that "he wasn't allowed to ask questions for the next ten minutes" after receiving a question that Mazzulla deemed a bit off base. But things really ramped up when Dalton Pepper, who defines the term "quiet and reserved" made his debut in the NCAA spotlight after grabbing steals on three consecutive possessions to ice WVU's 84-76 win over the Tigers.
To set things up, it should be understood that Pepper is less demonstrative than a Benedictine monk. During interviews, he speaks so softly that reporters have to lean in close to hear his answers. Therefore, putting him on the podium for open interviews was the chance for some high humor from his teammates, and they took advantage of it. When Mazzulla was asked if Pepper had ever produced a similar defensive run in practice, he pounced.
"Actually,it's the total opposite," Mazzulla said with a perfect straight face. "When things are going bad and we need a basket, we usually just attack Dalton."
That answer caused teammates Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant to dissolve in laughter. Jones actually had to hide his head under his warm-ups, while Bryant's ever-present smile widened until it stretched ear to ear. Even head coach Bob Huggins grinned and smirked as the players got their shots in at each other.
Given the chance to respond, Pepper didn't shy away, claiming that the gold team (West Virginia's backups and reserves) usually targeted Mazzulla or Bryant when they needed a bucket.
It was all, of course, in good fun, and while some teams take the interview sessions more grimly, that's just not this team's way.
"We're laid back," Mazzulla said after the group interview session. "We don't get too worked up, and when you have a guy with a personality like Pep it's almost impossible not to have a good time with him. But that's definitely when we're at our best. It's when we are most comfortable, and when we play our best."
Huggins gives total approval to the byplay, and was even asked about it last year after several similar sessions with the media. He noted that he wanted his players to have fun, to enjoy the tournament and all of its trappings, and that so long as they continued to play and practice hard, it didn't matter at all whether they were serious or silly off the court.
An acknowledged master of the one-liner and the deadpan reply, not to mention the zinging barb, Huggins had to appreciate the by-play he saw from his team. West Virginia's players work hard and are coached hard, so it's important to have that balanced with some good-natured fun.
That behavior continued in the locker room after the game, where several more jabs were delivered to Pepper. He took it all in good grace, however, and his teammates were also quick to praise him as well.
"The plays were just huge," Cam Thoroughman noted. "They were the plays of the game. We practice it maybe 10-15 minutes and he might steal it one or two times, and that's a lot of reps. He did it three times in a row [today]."
Mazzulla, after leading the attack, was also quick to dish out praise.
"I think it's great [he is getting this attention], he said of the media horde surrounding Pepper. "He works hard and is always trying to do things right. He is not a 'trouble kid'. He wants to do right all the time. It's great to see him perform like that."
Of course, West Virginia's tournament success isn't dependent on its players cutting up and having a good time. The Mountaineers are experienced enough to know that's not what defeated Kentucky last year, and it isn't going to help them win the rematch either. However, for this team, a loose approach seems to translate to better play on the court, so from that view, WVU is in good shape as it readies itself for the Wildcats.