Tough Field

Head coach John Beilein doesn't mince words when talking about the Mountaineers' opponent in the semifinals of the Guardians Classic.

"We will try to do our best to be in it against what I see as one of the best teams I've ever seen in college basketball," opined Beilein.

The opponent is Texas, which West Virginia will face next Monday in Kansas City, Mo. The Longhorns are ranked number two in the country, equaling the lofty heights they currently hold in football.

"It's a terrific opportunity to be in the national limelight," Beilein continued. "We're thrilled to have this opportunity. We've tried to develop our program to be with the likes of Texas, Iowa and Kentucky."

Beilein's "we're happy to be here" persona contrasts with that of Texas' Rick Barnes, who uses jokes and one-liners to deflect attention from his team.

"If [the game] runs out to be a chess match, they'll win because John Beilein is smarter than me," Barnes quipped. "Maybe if it's backgammon or something, I would have a chance."

While the coaches use different strategies to praise their opponents and refrain from providing any potential bulletin board material, they don't sell their own teams short, either. Beilein, as usual, praised his players for the improvements they have made that helped them go deep into the NCAA tournament.

"I think that our kids started believing not only in the system but in each other," he said of the key to last year's success. "Our starting center got a cold, and Kevin Pittsnogle became Lou Gehrig while the other guy became Wally Pipp," he added, showing that Barnes isn't the only one who can come up with an apropos line. "Our chemistry was good, and we got fortuitous bounces for like a month straight. We'd come down to the end, and the coach didn't do anything --the ball just bounced the right way. I would love to see that trend continue, but I know it can go very quickly the other way."

For every good word about his team, Beilein had a matching one for the Longhorns.

"I don't know if this is the highest-ranked team we have faced," said Beilein of the number-two Texas squad. "We have played several teams that have won the national title in the year we have played them. They have a very, very good team. Their defense is tremendous. If you watched the Samford game (and saw how the Longhorns defended their motion offense) you know that having just one day's preparation to get ready for a Princeton team is difficult. I don't see a chink in the armor on offense either. We have to hope they have a bad day and we have a great day. They have a lot of bullets in their gun, and are well-coached, and are well deserving of [their ranking]."

Barnes, predictably, fired right back with some glowing comments of his own.

"John Beilein has had success everywhere his been. His style is something he created. People talk about it being a Princeton offense, but I think it's the John Beilein offense. He's taken some of those concepts, but added a lot of own. They change things up a lot defensively as well to keep you confused.

"I was watching tape of them, and because they have so many guys coming back, they looked like they were in midseason form. They have a lot of interchangeable parts, and if you have one guy break down they will exploit it. They'll read areas and personnel they want to attack."


The two teams, along with Iowa and Kentucky, would be more than a representative final four in the national championships, let alone a preseason tournament. No other early get-together will feature four teams so highly ranked, or with such prospects for an outstanding season. While many teams look for an early holiday tournament to pad the win totals, these four teams are to be commended for avoiding the easy way out.

Of course, each squad also got two relatively guaranteed wins in their home-hosted opening rounds to help make next week's games easier to schedule, but credit for that has to go to the Gazelle Group, which runs the five-site, 11-day event. It's a strategy that should continue to attract top teams in the future.

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Beilein on under-appreciated point guard J.D. Collins:

"J.D. was a major reason for our run last year. He's a team player and a great defender, and as his offense continued to grow it helped us get better. Being from Houston, I know this will be a big game for him."

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