Mind Games

There seems to be lots of angst and hand-wringing concerning West Virginia's opening round game with Providence on Wednesday, as many fans and media attempt to bury the Mountaineers before the opening tip of the Big East tournament even takes place.

While some of those thoughts are certainly malicious in nature, many of them are probably honest assessments on the part of those observers. They saw WVU lose a very important game to an average Seton Hall team that likely would have locked up an NCAA bid, and now, just as in past seasons, they are anticipating another one and done in the Big East tournament. Mountaineer fans, and truly, West Virginians as a group, tend to wear the hair shirt of ruined expectations gladly, so it's not hard to understand why many are expecting another first round loss in the conference confab.

While it's easy to look back at history, and from it, predict future events, it's also not reliable. This is a different Mountaineer team, with strengths and weaknesses different from those of its predecessors, so what happened last year, or three years ago, in New York has no bearing on the events of 2005. In fact, WVU's tournament success or failure this year will likely hinge on one crucial factor – the Mountaineers' mental state.

Head coach John Beilein has noted repeatedly that his team took almost a month to recover from the blowout loss at Villanova, and it certainly wasn't physical injuries he was talking about. Instead, it was the mental trauma that the Mountaineers had trouble shaking. Before that contest, WVU had reeled off 10 consecutive wins, and hadn't faced much in the way of adversity. However, after the Wildcats knocked them around, West Virginia had trouble regaining the swagger that they had displayed in knocking off schools such as LSU, George Washington and North Carolina State.

WVU finally began to crawl out of their confidence hole by playing well against Syracuse and Connecticut, then finally emerged with their home win over Pitt. Since then, through the season finale, at least, WVU played with the type of confidence they exhibited in November and December. However, after a loss to a Pirate team they should have beaten, West Virginia's psyche is again in question. How will the Mountaineers respond?

One of the critical factors in Wednesday's game is likely to be the start of the contest. A West Virginia team looking to build its confidence certainly can't afford a bad beginning against the Friars. WVU struggles to score points at times, and having to dig out of an early hole and playing from behind for most of the game can be a draining process, as they found out against the Pirates. Therefore, it's imperative that the Mountaineers get off to a solid start, and not fall behind by eight or ten points early. This is so critical, in fact, that WVU must not let the game get away early. Calling a timeout if WVU gets behind by four or six points might not be a bad move.

One other item the WVU team must fight is the shooting background, or lack thereof at Madison Square Garden. In the Garden the background is very dark, and the seats at the ends of the floor are very far away and slope gently away from the court. That makes for a very dark background, and from the floor it looks like the basket is floating in a sea of darkness. Granted, this shouldn't be a disadvantage for West Virginia, because all the teams obviously play on the same court. However, there's no doubt that the setting at the Garden has bothered good shooting Mountaineer teams in the past. Once again, however, it's more mental than physical. The Mountaineers must block out these distractions, focus on the hoop, and let fly.

So, what can we expect of WVU's mental state on Wednesday afternoon? While many may be expecting another collapse, I have a feeling that the Mountaineers are going to play well - or at least with confidence. If nothing else, this WVU team has shown it is intelligent, and has the ability learn from its experiences. This West Virginia team should know by now that it has the ability to compete with any team in the conference, and so long as they believe it as well, there's no reason they can't defeat the Friars for a third time.

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