Lessons Learned

Many observers believe that West Virginia's early season basketball success has been nothing but a series of cakewalks, but there have actually been some lessons learned by the men as they have raced out to an 8-0 start.

After looking at the results of West Virginia's early non-conference basketball games, conventional thinking had it that those contests were nothing but glorified scrimmages. Blowouts of teams like Radford and New Hampshire, among others, left many to think that WVU was getting nothing in the way of basketball education or quality experience from the November and December schedule.

While head coach John Beilein has expressed a bit of regret that his team hasn't been challenged more, there's also no doubt that he's perfectly satisfied with an 8-0 record. It's doubtful if he would trade one of those wins for a loss against another team, after all!

Despite the lack of close competition, his team has learned several things from the winning streak.

"I think it was good for us to get out and play and have some fun and get a lead," junior forward Kevin Pittsnogle said. "We learned how to keep a lead and keep a big lead, and learned how to put teams away."

That has been a problem for the team in recent seasons. West Virginia often got out to double-digit leads against non-conference foes, only to be unable to put the hammer down and crush their opponents. That hasn't been a problem this year, as WVU's increased depth has allowed them to keep the pressure on and bury the opposition.

Of course, there's a flip side to the good things from that lesson. While the Mountaineers have been burying the competition, they haven't faced much in the way of late game pressure situations, which could be a bit of a problem.

"It has kind of hurt us a litle bit not to have a close game except for Duquesne, and that was a long time ago," Pittsnogle admitted. "That may hurt us a little bit, but I think as long as we stay in the games we'll be o.k., because we are a veteran team. We've been here before."

Read the last part of Pittsnogle's statement again, because that's likely the key element in answering this concern. If the Mountaineers were a freshman and sophomore-laden bunch, the fact that they had only been in one close game as the clock wound down might be more troubling. However, with steady players like Pittsnogle, Joe Herber, Tyrone Sally, J.D. Collins and Patrick Beilein, WVU's roster is dotted with performers that have been through gut-twisting close games, and against some of the top teams in the country. It's unlikely that those players will suddenly fold if they are down by a point with two minutes to go.

Of course, John Beilein would have loved to have more pressure situations for his younger and less experienced players, but so far their progress has been good as well. Darris Nichols has continued to improve in relief of Collins, and Luke Bonner and Frank Young have gotten some solid time as well. At some point this year, that experience will likely pay off.

West Virginia has also been able to use those blowouts to work on other defense to complement their signature 1-3-1 looks. In particular, the man-to-man, which is still a work in progress, has gotten more attention.

"We are still working on our man," Pittsnogle noted. "We played a lot of it in the second half (against New Hampshire) and worked on it a lot."

The Mountaineers also carried over a lesson from last season about underestimating opponents. While that might not appear big from the outside, it certainly is inside the locker room, where the players and coaches know that every victory this year is vital in the quest to make the NCAA tournament.

"We aren't overlooking anyone right now," Pittsnogle analyzed. "I think we learned our lesson against Northeastern last year. We overlooked them a little bit, and we're not good enough to do that. We're not Syracuse or UConn that can have a bad night and still win a game by 10 or 20. We have to come out every night and play like it's our last game and play hard."

The biggest lesson of all, however, might not be as tangible as those previously listed. It's importance, however, shouldn't be understated. In talking with players this year, many of the things they say sound almost exactly like the things that John Beilein says. That doesn't mean the players are simply mindless robots, or that the coaches are telling them what to say. This Mountaineer team is an intelligent bunch, and certainly doesn't have any problem in forming their own opinions and expressing themselves.

Rather, that unity of thinking appears to show that this team and the coaching staff are on the fabled "same page". The coaches are teaching, and the players are listening, learning, and most of all, buying in to what they have been taught. When you hear Pittsnogle talk about the team's shooting strength, or Sally about the help Mike Gansey has brought to the 1-3-1, or everyone's single-minded focus on the next game on the schedule, you might well be listening to Beilein's comments on the same subject.

Of course, everything looks good when the team is winning. The true test of the strength of these lessons, and how deeply they are ingrained, will come when the Mountaineers lose a couple of games and undergo some adversity. However, unlike some Mountaineer teams of the past, that danger doesn't appear imminent with this squad. With steady leadership and veteran poise, the 2004-05 squad looks to be equipped to handle any challenges that come their way.

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