Hunting Season

Beginning with tomorrow's nationally televised game against Connecticut, every Mountaineer opponent for the rest of the regular season has their eyes on the NCAA Tournament.

Some teams left on the schedule, more specifically UConn and Pitt, are a mortal lock for the Big Dance at this point in the season, and are likely playing for seeding. Others (Syracuse, Louisville, and Cincinnati) are probably on the outside looking in, and nothing would be a bigger boost for their tournament hopes than a win over West Virginia.

That leads us to the title of the article: "Hunting Season." Perhaps you were expecting a commentary about the recent events involving Vice President Dick Cheney, but you won't find that here. What you will find is the return of the 'hunter mentality' that head coach John Beilein has preached about over the past two years.

If you're unfamiliar with Beilein's terminology, he's constantly wanting his teams to be the hunter instead of the hunted. Being the hunter means you're constantly fighting and doing anything you can to obtain the ultimate goal. Being the hunted means you're playing with a huge target on your chest. For most of the season the Mountaineers have been the latter, what with their magical run last March and marquee victories this season over Oklahoma, UCLA, and Villanova all on the road. But tomorrow afternoon when the ball is tipped on Gale Catlett Drive, West Virginia will settle back into the role of hunter.

"We're back into the hunter mentality. We've tried all year to stay with that same mentality, but I think we lost it for a game or two lately," said junior forward Frank Young. "But I think we're back into it, and trying to fight our way back to the tournament."

This isn't just any game either. For the first time since the 1999 season, the Mountaineers will face America's number one team. By coincidence, that game was also against Connecticut in the Coliseum. The Huskies are led by Rudy Gay, the possible top pick in June's NBA Draft. At 6'9" playing the small forward, Gay will no doubt present some matchup problems for West Virginia's defense. The key won't be stopping him, just slowing him down.

"I think we need to try to stay between him and the basket," says Young. "He's a great player who's going to make some plays, but we've got to try and keep the ball out of his hands as much as we can."

While Gay and his talents have been well-documented, it's the play of point guard Marcus Williams that makes Connecticut click. Williams isn't going to shoot lights out every game, but he'll shoot well enough to keep defenses honest. The area where he'll cause the most chaos for the opposition is his ability to penetrate and create open shots for his teammates.

"He's the real key to their team, a real key," noted Young. "Coach said that he's the head to the snake. When the ball's in his hands, he gets it to the right people.

Slowing down Williams and Gay is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to beating Connecticut, but it's certainly a good start. Still, the Mountaineers aren't going to put too much stock in to one particular game with the quality of opponents they'll be facing the rest of the season.

"We're still trying to play into the tournament," said Frank. "It's not a given that we're in the tournament until we're sitting there on selection Sunday and ‘West Virginia' pops up on the screen."

"We'd rather be (playing difficult opponents down the stretch) than playing a low-RPI team that's slumping," added Beilein. "When you're playing the RPI's that I'm playing right now, and you have three of them at home, it really helps your cause."

The hunter's won't be wearing blaze orange, rather they'll be dressed in Blue and Gold. And starting with tomorrow's game against UConn, hunting season is officially open.

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