Typically, college locker rooms are off limits following games, but come tournament time that changes. Media are given access to all players after the game in what is typically a restricted area, and that leads to a look at some of the raw emotions present in the immediate aftermath of a contest. It can be a tough scene, especially for seniors who have just played their last game, and tears often flow.
For this year's West Virginia, team, however, that wasn't the case. There weren't any tears from the seniors. Almost no one appeared upset. It was, in short, a telling snapshot of the issues that crushed any hopes of a successful season. There was, however, one exception to that group, and he reiterated his plan to make sure that next year isn't a repeat of this one.
As teammates were interviewed, Kevin Noreen sat slumped against the side wall of his locker with a pained expression on his face. It was clear that the last-second loss, as well as a year full of frustration, was weighing heavily on him. When approached, he described the last play of the game, confirming what everyone saw from courtside and on television – no one in a white West Virginia jersey made an effort to go get the ball.
"To break it down, they set a high ball screen and we were prepared to switch that, which we did. Aaric Murray took the switch and the guy dribbled in and he blocked it. Everything looked great to that point," Noreen detailed. "But, I don't think the guard switched onto Aaric's man, and that's why he was so wide open, but when that kind of play happens you need five men on the glass to rebound that ball. You have to get your hands on the ball."
That analysis echoed that of head coach Bob Huggins, who trotted out his mantra about getting to the ball in his post game comments. That ethos, however, is just one of many that most members of this team failed to internalize and make a part of their game, and it again cost the Mountaineers dearly.
"We played great defense and didn't block out. It's a terrible way to lose," Noreen said in a monotone, clearly affected by the outcome. "And it's a terrible way to end the season, but it's indicative of the whole year."
Noreen certainly wasn't trying to heap blame on anyone else. But it's clear, given his comments and those made by others this year, that the 2012-13 Mountaineers never meshed on the court. By most accounts, team members were friends off the court. On the court, though, issues arose, which affected the team's ability to play effectively as a unit. Players' unwillingness to put in extra work, or even complete required practice tasks, also weighed heavily in each of the near-record 19 losses. And what's worse, very few members of the team seemed to care.
Noreen, though, was not one of them. After suffering through a lost season, he pledged to make it different next year, and has already set forth his watchword for the coming off-season.
"It starts and ends with accountability," he said quietly but forcefully. "It's going to be a different culture next year, and we are going to start that this spring in everything we do. If you don't show up with open gym on time, you aren't going to play. It's little things like that that will make us a team again going into next season. We had too many things like that go wrong, and you see the end result of that."
Noreen tried to make his teammates accountable this year, but met with little success. In the end, of course, it's on each individual player to make the decision to do what's required. And if they don't, it's up to the coaches to sit them down -- even if it means that there are only five players available to play the entire 40 minutes. Noreen doesn't have control of that end of the equation, but he does plan to redouble his efforts to make the members of next year's team, whoever they might be, follow the path to success.
It seems as if he has at least a few willing to follow. Eron Harris and Terry Henderson both acknowledged that change in work habits are needed. Even Aaric Murray, pegged as a problem by some, said that one of the main lessons he has learned this year is that games are won as much in the spring and summer as they are during the season, and that he will improve his work habits. Talk, of course, isn't the same as action, but at least Noreen, who already demonstrates all of the work habits that he's trying to instill in others, appears to have some that are willing to go those extra miles. Will they? If not, it won't be for a lack of trying from the Mountaineers' grittiest player.