Dream Big, Focus Small

As terms like "on the bubble", "Big Dance" and "NCAA at-large bid" floated around the WVU Coliseum this week, head coach John Beilein chose a novel approach in order to keep his team focused on the task at hand: beating Rutgers.

"We only mention ‘NCAA' once each day – when we huddle at the end of practice," Beilein said following West Virginia's 75-58 throttling of the Scarlet Knights on Senior Day. "That's the only time we talk about it. Other than that, we don't mention it. I know that's coachspeak, but that's the only way we can do it. We tell them to ‘dream big, but focus small'. Dream the dream. It should be out there. But once you get there, focus on the task at hand."

Of course, making the NCAA tournament is the long-term goal, as even Beilein admits. However, he considers it counter productive to sit around and count wins, or try to figure out which team needs to win or lose in order to help his team get in. Such discussions and thoughts drive the best of bracketologists crazy, would certainly be a huge distraction for any team on the bubble, as the Mountaineers certainly are.

So Beilein, who is nothing if not inventive in terms of his psychological approach, decided to put all of his eggs in the basket labeled "Senior Day". Instead of selling his team on the need to beat Seton Hall in order to boost its NCAA stock, he sold his squad on the need to send seniors Tyrone Sally, D'or Fischer and Duriel "Juice" Price out with a win on their big day at the Coliseum.

"That was our whole goal today," Beilein confirmed. "There were a lot of distractions out there, from the Pitt win to the talking heads and all the things that go on when a team gets into February and starts to play well. We couldn't talk about [the NCAA]. I wanted them to talk about all [those seniors] walking off the court to a standing ovation. That's what we had to have, and that's what we talked about every four minutes. I kept telling them at every TV timeout I wanted to get Juice back in the game again."

"We focused on a complete different thing," Beilein continued. "The Pitt game was gone, any March opportunities were gone, and the real opportunity was to get these guys a win."

Obviously, Beilein's team isn't dumb. They know what's at stake, and they knew that beating Rutgers was the first of three steps they needed to take in order to secure an NCAA berth. However, the first big key to getting a team to buy into any approach is to believe in it yourself, and the veteran head coach certainly does. By not talking about the tournament possibilities, Beilein and his squad concentrate on each practice, and each game, and thus are able to bring all their energies to bear upon it. Beilein's strategy of making Saturday about the seniors, rather than about NCAA hopes, was simply a masterstroke of psychology, no matter how transparent it might have been.

Another reason for the ploy was likely the coach's remembrance of a previous year on NCAA tenterhooks. Beilein recalls a February spent on the NCAA bubble at Richmond, and knows that the only control he has over the process is to prepare his team to win. Analyzing bracket projections or scoreboard watching don't help, so he doesn't waste energy doing it.

"I sat on that bubble one time at Richmond, and we did everything we were supposed to do and we waited and waited. We did everything right and we won every game, so I'm not going to speculate from here on out on where we stand. I'm only going to speculate on what we are going to do in practice and what we can do to get better."

The veteran coach also firmly discounted any possibility of begging or lobbying publicly for a bid, as shameless coaches such as Texas' Mack Brown, and yes, even Florida State's Bobby Bowden have done in football.

"I won't be doing that publicly," Beilein said. "I might send an email or something if someone asks for input. I would respond, but the Big East should do the lobbying. That's Mike [Tranghese's] job.

While many onlookers may, as Beilein suggest, dismiss his comments and outlook as mere coachspeak, the fact is that it's working. Many Mountaineer teams in this position have stumbled in their efforts to make a late season move, and while WVU isn't home yet, the "one game at a time, one practice at a time" mantra declaimed by the coach has been successful so far.

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