Early Season Importance

Can a team have a must win game in December?

That's something I've been pondering during the WVU men's team's basketball break. After beating up on three decidedly inferior opponents before the finals break, the Mountaineers now face their last big-name non-conference opponent before the Big East season starts. (I'm not forgetting UCLA, but that matchup comes five games into the Big East season. And no, I'm not including Marshall either.)

One on hand, the upcoming game with the Sooners certainly isn't a make or break proposition. WVU could lose this game and still get into the NCAA tournament with 12 more wins in the regular season (which would give them 18 overall). However, that's certainly not an easy task, given the death-march of the Big East conference schedule. There aren't any games that can be marked down as near certain wins on WVU's schedule (especially since Rutgers and DePaul don't show on this year's conference slate) so getting that dozen wins won't be as easy as it would have been in past seasons.

As everyone knows, West Virginia missed two golden chances to score victories over highly-regarded foes when it lost late leads to both Texas and LSU. Those were major RPI games, and would have been huge boosts to the Mountaineers' NCAA tournament chances. The fact that WVU played those games won't hurt, of course, and will certainly help if WVU is a bubble team come the first week of March. However, there's no real way to determine how much credit they will receive just for playing those games if they don't win any of them.

With that in mind, the OU matchup becomes more critical, at least to my way of thinking. The Mountaineers really need a quality out of conference win to pair with some victories in the league, and this game appears to be the best chance to do that.

Again, I'm not overlooking UCLA, but that game comes at the worst possible time for WVU. The Mountaineers will have played five games in 13 days before making the cross-country flight to face the Bruins, and then will have to return home before making the trip to Charleston for the grudge match with Marshall. (Who set those dates up anyway?) Given that brutal stretch, a well-rested West Virginia team might have a better chance against Oklahoma, even though the Sooners are again firmly ensconced in the Top Ten.

Must-win? I'm not sure if you can call it that, but it's the next step below if it's not. Call it an "al-must" win.

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Former Pitt sports information director and current football pundit-without-a-home Beano Cook took a cheap shot at West Virginia in his latest column. In it, Beano (think maybe it's time to drop that 1920s nickname?) had the following Christmas request:

For West Virginia Fans: Instructions for driving on a four-lane highway in Atlanta.

My first thought on reading that swipe was that WVU fans are quite familiar with four lane roads. Two of them, in fact, run right past Morgantown. Beano of course, should be well-familiar with Interstate 79, one of those two four-lane federal highways. After all, it's the one his beloved Panthers trudged back up with their tails between their legs after a 45-13 beatdown this past Thanksgiving.

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Finally, I think it's time that teams get their own hotels for bowl games with no other people allowed in them. I know that will probably be met with howls of derision, but after witnessing the zoos that often develop in the lobbies and hallways of teams' bowl homes, I can attest that it's a distraction and a concern for the football staffs.

I understand that most fans that stay in or drop by the team hotel have good intentions. They simply want to offer congratulations, talk for a moment, or get a picture or two. But when you multiply this out by five or ten thousand fans, it simply gets to be too much to handle.

The problem was certainly on display in Charlotte three years ago, when WVU's downtown hotel was overrun by Mountaineer fans after a street pep rally. For a couple of hours around the rally, there was literally no getting in or out. It was a madhouse. One with the best of intentions, but a madhouse nonetheless.

I'm sure that some will think I'm advocating more special treatment and isolation for players, and in a way I suppose that's true. However, if it means they will be able to concentrate more on the game and less on ways to get back to their rooms, I think that's a good thing.

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