Signs of the Times

When the major topics of discussion are the relative paucity of passing yards or an inability to inbound the ball, things must be pretty good on the WVU sports scene.

With the football team rolling up an 11-1 record and a Sugar Bowl championship, and the basketball team steaming toward another NCAA berth, there's no doubt that West Virginia's major programs are near, if not at, an all-time combined high. Of course, nothing is ever perfect, so there are always a few shortcomings for fans to discuss, if not complain about.

In football, the biggest concern, or picking point, continues to be the lack of a consistent passing game. In men's basketball, it's items such as not being able to inbound the ball very well or the lack of rebounding. And while those things are items that deserve discussion, it should also be pointed out that things must be pretty good if those are the biggest items we have to beat upon.

I'm not suggesting that anyone who brings up the problems in these areas should be labeled killjoys or nitpickers. There is always room for improvement, and always issues that deserve attention and discussion. I simply hope that those conversations don't drown out the larger picture – that WVU is a combined 26-5 in the two sports since the start of the season. There aren't many schools that can match that mark.

The old saying "familiarity breeds contempt" certainly applies here. WVU fans are passionate about their team, and gobble up any and all information available. You only have to spend a few minutes on our message boards to see that. But with that knowledge, and all that familiarity, often comes a willingness to criticize more easily, and to magnify certain flaws. I certainly don't think everyone falls into that trap, but a few do.

My biggest fear – well, not fear, but maybe concern – is that when the teams drop a couple of games, these items will be dragged out again and used as ammunition. ‘I told you the lack of rebounding would eventually get us," will go the cry.

Of course, there's not much logic in that approach. What about the many games WVU won while being outrebounded? Such counter-arguments never carry much weight, however.

The one thing I really don't want to see is disdain for the way in which WVU wins, or an immediate discounting of the program when a couple of losses occur. And that's going to happen. (Anyone who thinks West Virginia, or any school, can go unbeaten in this league is nuts. We're not talking about the ACC here, which has one really good team and a lot of mediocre ones, and is in danger of falling behind the Missouri Valley Conference in terms of national respect.) It may sound like coachspeak, but the basketball season is a marathon, not a sprint. And there's no need to go flying off the bandwagon if the Mountaineers drop a couple of games, or to blame it on a lack of rebounding. If WVU loses, it's usually because it didn't shoot well, or didn't protect the ball well, not because it couldn't get the ball inbounds in certain situations.

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And now for my own concern. I think teams are starting to figure out ways to attack WVU's 1-3-1 zone. WVU's last few opponents have shunned passes to the wings in favor of attacking the middle of the zone on the dribble, then passing the ball to cutters along the baseline or to big men posted up on the blocks. St. John's varied this a bit by occasionally passing the ball to either the deep or short corner, then looking for big man Lamont Hamilton rolling into the lane or posting up on the block.

Head coach John Beilein downplayed this latest stratagem after the Marshall game, but there is no doubt that opposing guards are being instructed to keep their dribble and attack the middle of the zone on the bounce. It will be interesting to see how West Virginia counters this latest wrinkle.

On the other hand, WVU forced 21 turnovers and yielded just 61 points on 41% shooting to the Red Storm, so it's not as if this is a catastrophe. Maybe I'm getting caught up in the nitpicking too.

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When the season began, I was hoping for an 8-8 or 9-7 league record. WVU now has a chance to get to eight conference wins before it leaves home again. This is a stunning achievement, and one that's not getting enough mention. This is West Virginia's best Big East conference start ever (by a considerable margin) and deserves to be celebrated. The Mountaineers have three league road wins, and if it can find a way to win this week's home contests against Notre Dame and Cincinnati, will be in excellent shape as it embarks on the most difficult part of the schedule – a four-road-games-out-of-five stretch that includes Pitt, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Connecticut and Syracuse. Looking that far down the road is difficult, but even a couple of victories during that block would set the Mountaineers up nicely for a first round bye in the Big East Tournament, which is practically a requirement for any team hoping to take home the championship hardware.

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For those still bumming over the Marshall loss, consider this. West Virginia is still playing for many prizes – national rankings, a first round tournament bye, NCAA seeding. The Herd's 2005-06 season is now simply a matter of playing out the string, as it duly demonstrated with a loss to Houston following the WVU game. That's a common scenario in this series, and one that will likely be repeated in years to come. West Virginia, on the other hand, was able to pick up the pieces and gather yet another road league win – one that resonates on a national scale.

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There are many great players in the Big East, so I usually don't get too bent out of shape about conference awards and all-league teams. However, if Mike Gansey and Kevin Pittsnogle aren't high on those lists at the end of the season, then something is definitely wrong with the selectors. If each keeps playing at his current level of productivity, there should be Mountaineers on the first and second all-league teams at a minimum.

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