The Mountaineers aren't going to channel any visions of the Showtime L.A. Lakers or Loyola Marymount, but getting the ball upcourt in a hurry has been an emphasis of preseason. Numerous drills designed to foster quick outlet passes and early opportunity shots have been run, and the fruits of those drills were on display Monday night in the Coliseum. Granted, the opposition, which was about as limp as the pasta in a dorm cafeteria, paved the way for many of those chances, but it was also apparent that the Mountaineers have improved in this area. When a rebound was grabbed or a steal secured, the first look was almost always upcourt, and the point guards, along with Joe Herber and Mike Gansey, pushed the ball with good pace into the frontcourt.
"We do not want to manufacture every point," head coach John Beilein said following Monday's game. "We have to find some from spontaneous play. We could work all day to get an open three-pointer, or we can run the floor and get an open three-pointer. We're really trying to get people to run the floor. We have to get it in our head how important it is to do that."
Again, the Mountaineers aren't going to be scoring 30 points in transition every night. Defensive rebounding, which is the key to any transition game, is still going to be an issue. But if WVU can get, say, three or four three-pointers a night in transition, it could be the difference in several games.
The addition of Mike Gansey and Darris Nichols, both good defenders, will allow the Mountaineers to play a little more man to man defense this year, and (gasp) perhaps even pressure in the full court in some situations.
Over the first two seasons of the John Beilein era, WVU pressed only when in dire straits, because the Mountaineers simply didn't have the quickness to do so. With a bit deeper bench this year, and some more quickness, West Virginia won't be so far in the hole in terms of defensive options. At times, Nichols and Jarmon Durisseau-Collins could even team up together, which would put a cat-quick, if short, guard tandem on the floor to apply man-to-man and full court pressure. That's not a primary option at this point, but it's one to watch for as the season unfolds.
Of course, the 1-3-1 zone will still be employed, as will the 2-3. WVU still isn't overflowing with the numbers of on the ball defenders necessary to run a suffocating man to man in the half court or zone trap into the backcourt. This year's team, however, is taking a step in the right direction in that regard.
‘Here we go again,' I hear you saying. ‘Protecting the school and the program again.' I know that's a common conception, but it's not correct. I try to be honest about WVU, and this is one belief I've had ever since the schedule came out.
Road games against LSU, N. C. State, Duquesne (don't laugh, you know how they play the Mountaineers), plus home games against George Washington and St. Peter's (again, check them out before you dismiss them) make WVU's out of conference schedule an order of magnitude more difficult than it was a season ago. But don't take my word for it (or that of other pundits who dismiss schools just because they are too lazy to check out teams whose names aren't Syracuse or UConn). These teams can play, just like Northeastern did last year.
That said, I do think the Mountaineers will be better. The third year in the Beilein system and the addition of some new talent will help WVU be a more rounded team. Will that be enough to get the 18 wins in the regular season and Big East tournament that will likely be needed to make it to the Big Dance? I don't know, but I do think the Mountaineers will have to put up something like an 8-3 or 9-2 mark in out of conference games to have a shot at it, and it won't be easy. Remember that when you're deciding whether or not to come to that George Washington or St. Peter's game.
I don't know who it will be, but it always happens. A newcomer or younger player is singled out for stardom, and when he doesn't immediately produce like Michael Jordan, he's pronounced a failure.
I'm excited about this team, but I'm also realistic. Younger players are just that – younger players. They are still learning and still growing. You can't expect them to have the consistency of a Tyrone Sally or a Joe Herber, because those guys have been through the wars. They have thousands of practice hours under their belts, and lots of game experience. It's not fair to hold the young guys to the same standards right away. So when Darris Nichols hits a rough patch, or when Luke Bonner and Brad Byerson are nailed to the bench, or Frank Young doesn't get major minutes, don't be quick to label them. These players are still learning and still growing.
The one challenge that holds the most interest for me right now, other than winning games, of course, is the rotation and the division of playing time.
In Beilein's first two seasons, this wasn't really an issue, because the Mountaineers definitely weren't the deepest team around. This year? Well, WVU isn't going to have a bench like the 1975 UCLA team, but there are more options and more players competing for time. How Beilein handles this, and, perhaps more importantly, how each of those players reacts, could be one of the most important determinants of West Virginia's success.
I have some more thoughts on this topic, plus Beilein's opinions, to share later. But suffice ti to say that if everyone settles into their roles and continues the excellent team play that has marked this squad the last two seasons, there very well could be some March Madness Mountaineer style to enjoy this spring.