In the words of host Steven A. Smith, I, quite frankly, could not believe some of the talk from the other Big East coaches.
Even with four starters returning from a team that finished second in the conference tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight, there is still very little respect among the league for West Virginia.
When asked who would be the teams to watch in the league, none of the coaches mentioned the Mountaineers. Yes, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim did say that the teams to watch are the teams with the most starters back and those teams are West Virginia and Georgetown, but he did so with a big smirk on his face.
The rest of the panel, which included Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, Georgetown's John Thompson III and Pitt's Jamie Dixon failed to mention West Virginia at all. Calhoun's answer was the most shocking. He bluntly stated that Connecticut would win the conference if it solved some troubles at guard and if it didn't then it would be Georgetown that took home the trophy. How is that for speaking your mind?
I want to make it clear that I am not claiming that WVU should be the conference favorite. Syracuse and Connecticut have dominated the league for years, and until they are knocked from their perch they should always be the front-runners. I was simply surprised that none of the coaches even uttered the words ‘West Virginia' with Beilein sitting right beside them. That, to me, shows a clear lack of respect.
I will, however, admit that I have some serious worries about this season's team, mostly because the Mountaineers set the bar so high a year ago. A return trip to the Elite Eight is definitely a tall order and one that even the North Carolinas and Dukes of the college basketball world fail to achieve from time to time.
The schedule also fills me with a great deal of anxiety. Let's not forget that WVU was just one or two losses away from not even being included in the NCAA tournament last March. Now it adda UCLA, Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and a couple of other powerhouses to the schedule. Matching last season's win total could be almost impossible.
The big question, though, is how many wins will it take to make "The Dance" in the new Big East. My guess is a team with 17 wins could get in. My other big worry this season is the loss of D'or Fischer. I realize that replacing Tyrone Sally will not be easy, either, but I was very impressed with Frank Young down the stretch, and I think he will turn into a strong player.
But even though he ended the season as a reserve, D'or Fisher won a lot of games for the Mountaineers in 2004-05. Without the big man in the middle, I am pretty confident that the wins over N.C. State and Wake Forest would have been losses and possibly a couple of others as well.
What will West Virginia do this season when it is put in a situation like it was against Wake Forest where it is being dominated inside? Kevin Pittsnogle has worked hard to improve his defense, but face the facts. Defense is never going to be his strength. It will be up to Robert Summers to provide some physical play in the paint, and I am just not sure he can fill Fischer's shoes.
Despite all of these negatives, I am still extremely excited about the approaching season. Give me Mike Gansey, Pat Beilein, J.D. Collins, Kevin Pittsnogle, Joe Herber and John Beilein any day of the week, and I will feel like I have a shot against any team you put together.
Nobody will work harder than these athletes and nobody — Bobby Knight included — will out-coach the man running the show on the WVU sideline.
Finally, I want to touch on the retiring of Jerry West and Sam Huff's numbers. Since the announcement on Monday, I have been shocked at how much negative talk I have heard about the honors.
"The rules are too strict. Why did we wait this long? Aren't we going to run out of numbers?"
Relax! West Virginia University has done exactly what it should do. The retiring of a number should be the highest honor an athlete can achieve and WVU has made sure that it has set the bar high.
By waiting this long, making the process so difficult and only retiring two numbers in the first year, West Virginia has made the honor very special. I cannot wait to be a part of both events, and I am confident that they will both be very special days.
There have been a number of great players who have worn the old gold and blue over the years, and eventually there probably should be a couple of other numbers retired. But No. 75 and No. 44 mean more to Mountaineer athletics than any others, and they should hang alone, at least for a little while.
Like many Mountaineer fans, however, there are a couple other honors that I think are long overdue. Something, besides a road, needs to be named after Don Nehlen. What he did for WVU athletics will never be matched, and his name should be associated with Mountaineer Field in some way. My idea is to name the football facilities building — currently called the Puskar Center — after him. If Puskar gets his name on the stadium — and I am not going to argue that point — then he should be willing to give up the title on the facilities building to the man who put West Virginia football on the map.
The other name that should be permanently associated with Mountaineer Field is Jack Fleming's. Thousands of Mountaineer fans, including yours truly, followed WVU athletics through the words of "The Voice of the Mountaineers" long before they had the opportunity to follow WVU in person.
The smell of the fall leaves, a big glass of Coke, a bowl of popcorn and the voice of Jack Fleming fill my earliest memories of WVU football and Mountaineer fans should be reminded of those recollections each and every time they walk past the press box — just as they are reminded of the accomplishments of Jerry West every time they enter the Coliseum. Next season when I head up top to prepare for another season of Mountaineer football, I want to enter the Jack Fleming Press Box to do so. Then, once basketball season has started, I hope to be doing interviews in the Mickey Furfari press room. These two legends need to be permanently honored, and it needs to be done soon.