It's been awhile since George Washington made a trip to the Coliseum. In fact, the last time the Colonials set foot in the "Big Cupcake" was the 1994-1995 season, the Mountaineers' final in the Atlantic 10 Conference. Ten years and countless water sealant tests later, the Colonials will be back in the friendly confines. The Mountaineers will be looking to avenge last year's 70-64 loss to GW in the BB&T Classic played at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C.
The most familiar non-conference foe coming to Morgantown is James Madison. The two teams met last season, with the Blue and Gold prevailing in the first game of the year.
The game with Coppin State will answer a question I have had for a couple of years. Prior to John Beilein's first game of head coach in 2002, I was listening to the pre-game show on the radio coming up I-79. While talking about that night's opponent, Delaware State, Beilein remarked "Well they're a lot like a Coppin State…" or something of that nature. I had heard coaches compare teams to Duke and Kansas, but Coppin State? From that night on, I've always wondered exactly what that meant. Frankly I shouldn't care, unless it's something other than a Mountaineer victory.
I don't know much about Radford or St. Peter's, other than Radford is located near another school in VA that used to be a member of the Big East, and St. Peter's made the NCAA tournament about a decade ago and one of their starters had a pony tail. The New Hampshire game is an intriguing match up, given that incoming freshman Luke Bonner hails from the Granite State. An interesting tie with Radford is that WVU director of basketball operations Bill Lilly served for several years as an assistant coach for the Highlanders.
Finally, the St. Bonaventure game will have a few ties between both teams, not the least of which is the fact that they were old foes in the Atlantic 10. Of course, there's recently departed point guard Tyler Relph, who has transferred to St. Bonaventure following his freshman season in Morgantown. Relph will have to sit out this season due to NCAA rules. For the Mountaineers, Mike Gansey will be playing his first season for WVU after sitting out a year following his transfer from, wouldn't you know it, St. Bonaventure. If that's not enough, Jayson Gee is an assistant on Bonnie head coach Anthony Solomon's staff. Gee guided the University of Charleston for seven highly successful seasons before taking the job at St. Bonaventure. The game will be a homecoming of sorts for him. The final tie in this game is another St. Bonaventure assistant, John Brannen. The former Marshall star teamed with current Memphis Grizzlies standout Jason Williams to lead the Thundering Herd to a 91-87 victory over the Mountaineers in the 1996 Capital City Classic, on a bitter cold night in Charleston that still turns my stomach to this day.
Of course the statewide bragging rights will again be on the line come mid-January as Ron Jirsa brings his Thundering Herd to Charleston to face the Mountaineers in a game which always seems to have a bit of everything.
Non-conference away: Louisiana State, NC State, Duquesne.
These three games will be measuring sticks for the success of Beilein's third team. The game with LSU sends the Mountaineers into an SEC environment for the first time since taking out Tennessee on a buzzer beater by Jonathan Hargett in 2001. A win in Baton Rouge would go a long way at the end of the season in helping the Blue and Gold's RPI.
The last time the Mountaineers visited NC State, the whole nation was watching on ESPN as Seldon Jefferson and Co. took out Herb Sendek's troops in the 1997 NIT. Sendek has recently adopted the "Princeton" offense, similar to that used by Beilein. While the final score could read something like 59-56, a game between two teams that run this system is seldom ever a blowout. The Wolfpack will be a contender for the ACC crown this season, and this match-up could be a lot closer than people may think. I know one thing: two straight seasons with wins over ACC basketball powers certainly would leave a sweet taste in my mouth around the holidays.
Duquesne has been a bit of a thorn in the Mountaineers side in recent years. Beilein righted the ship last year in the Coliseum with an OT victory, but the Palumbo Center has been a completely different animal for Mountaineer teams lately.
The defending national champs are easily the highlight of this group. For the second consecutive season, the Mountaineers will get a chance to have their own "shining moment" against the defending champions at home. UConn hasn't been to the Coliseum in a long time, and you can guarantee that the sea of gold will be out in full force to welcome Jim Calhoun and his mighty band of Huskies.
The Mountaineers get the Irish only once this season, but it's at home. A player of Chris Thomas's caliber is sure to garner some "special attention" from the students when Mike Brey's squad comes to town.
Providence and Pitt are also highlights of the conference home slate. The Friars will have All-American forward Ryan Gomes back, and look to contend with UConn for the league crown. Pitt escaped the University City with a narrow victory last year, but brings basically everybody back from a talented team that made it to the Sweet 16.
Conference away: BC, Pitt, Seton Hall, Georgetown, Syracuse, Villanova, Providence, St. John's
Road wins in the Big East are hard to come by, but stealing a victory in the Peterson Events Center (Pitt) and Carrier Dome (Syracuse) is even more difficult. One would assume given the current state of St. John's basketball that the Red Storm will host the Mountaineers in their on campus gymnasium, Alumni Hall, and not at Madison Square Garden.
A half-filled MCI Center will provide about as much excitement as a game at Miami, but nevertheless Beilein will have a great chance at picking up a road win against Georgetown.
Games at Seton Hall and Villanova also provide good opportunities for road wins.
So there you have it. There's a little bit of everything in this schedule: A trip down memory lane with the three A-10 opponents (Duquesne, George Washington, St. Bonaventure); Home match-ups with two of the best programs in the nation (Pitt and Connecticut); and the answer to the age old question, what exactly does it mean to be "Like a Coppin State?"
Returning virtually the entire team, the Mountaineers could realistically finish in the top half of the Big East. By taking care of business out of conference, which I'm defining as beating the teams you're supposed to beat and winning one of the LSU/NC State games, Beilein could enter conference play with a great shot at, dare I say, (dare, dare!) making the Big Dance.
Call me blindly optimistic, but this is what should be expected of a team that returns all five starters, including two of the most versatile big men in the Big East. After all, if it doesn't happen this coming season, the mountain to climb only gets steeper as Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, and DePaul join the conference in 2005-2006. If the basketball program is to return to its winning ways of the 1980's, this is the year to get it done. The good news for us is that this schedule provides a good mix of winnable games, toss up games, and games to measure the success of the program.