Rebuilding Comparisons

Football is obviously uppermost in the minds of most Mountaineer fans these days, but the men's basketball team is also beginning to prepare for the upcoming season. The rebuilding job in the Coliseum is a considerable one – more difficult, perhaps, than the repair job done on the roof a couple of years ago.

One of the problems the 2006-07 edition of the Mountaineers will face is the curse of expectations. Although most fans know they won't be seeing Kevin Pittsnogle, Mike Gansey, Joe Herber, J.D. Collins or Patrick Beilein in gold and blue again, they won't likely remember the struggles four of those five faced in the early part of their careers at WVU. Blowout losses, offensive struggles and defensive miscues were, if not common, at least a part of their initial season. Fans forgot those as their careers progressed, as those mistakes were buried under a rain of three-pointer, backdoor cuts and thrilling victories.

So, when this year's WVU team takes the floor, the new crop of freshmen will certainly be compared to the departed seniors. Trouble is, the comparisons will be made to the departed group's play as seniors, not to what it was when Pittsnogle and Herber were freshmen.

In order to combat that, West Virginia's coaching staff will, to their youngsters, certainly emphasize that they won't reach that level of play immediately.

"I think the five seniors -- the example they set not only for the incoming freshmen but also for the state -- represented the school and the state well with their unselfishness, their work ethic and their desire to excel, even under the most adverse situations," assistant coach Mike Maker told "They set the bar very high both on and off the court. "[For the newcomers], we know that it's not going to happen overnight. There are going to be high expectations. We understand that as a staff. The expectations for us are going to be to improve on a daily basis and help the players be the best they can be."

While the coaching staff knows that, it will probably be a painful lesson for many Mountaineer fans to relearn. There was much grumbling during the first year of head coach John Beilein's system. ‘This offense will never win in the Big East.' ‘Beilein's players can't compete with the other players in the league.' Comments such as that filled our message boards and inboxes the first couple of years, and while they largely dissipated over the last two (Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight appearances have a way of sending the gripers back into the woodwork), it won't take much for them to appear again. Therefore, patience will be preached, as will the subtext of making unfair comparisons.

Another line of thought is that this year's team might progress even more slowly than that first group, because the original group was able to play and learn together. While that perhaps meant more lumps initially, did it also mean they were able to learn and put it all together more quickly? Maker doesn't think so.

"I don't think that makes it more difficult. I think it makes it more interesting," he said with a smile. "It's an opportunity for Frank Young and Darris Nichols to provide leadership this year, where they were in the background last year. Those five seniors had been through the wars together, but I think it's time for somebody else to step up. I think the opportunities are there, and I think it's going to be an entertaining year."

Maker, of course, is counting on Young and Nichols, the two returnees with appreciable playing time, to be more productive players on the court as well. Whether they can develop into players that can take the big shot or keep things calm down the stretch of tight games remains to be seen. However, that was something the previous group didn't have right off the bat, so that could end up being the difference in a tight game or two this year.

The new group, which consists of Devan Bawinkel, Da'Sean Butler, Jacob Green, Joe Mazzulla, Cam Thoroughman, Wellington Smith and Jonnie West, will have different strengths than the departed five. That will also lead to some differing comparisons, but also provide a challenge to Maker and the rest of the Mountaineer coaching staff, as they try to identify what the new group is most comfortable with.

"I think it's a feeling out process," said Maker of what the coaching staff has to do to identify those strengths. "Thankfully Coach Beilein has years of dealing with that, because every team is different. For example, even though we had the five seniors returning last year, that team was different than the one from the year before, because we didn't have D'or Fischer or Tyrone Sally. We lost some of the length and athleticism, yet, that group understood what their strengths were. Our job is to try to put them in situations where their strengths are accentuated. And whatever limitations we do have, we try to minimize them."

It sounds simple, but of course it's much easier to describe the process than go through it. The rookies will have to learn Beilein Ball from the ground up – beginning with how to hold the ball, how to protect it, how to pass it, etc., before they can even begin to worry about making the right read on a screen and make the right cut. The coaches will have to learn who can play defense in open space, who can defend man to man, and who can put it all together in the toughest conference in the country. All of those things will take time. Success will be measured in smaller increments. And if the fans can't remember that, the coaches will be sure to keep reminding the team of it.

That's not to paint a Mordor-like picture of the upcoming season, however. Maker sees a great deal of potential in the new group, and has been pleasantly surprised by the attitude it has shown so far.

"I think they have a lot of personality about them – some moxie and some confidence," said Maker, who, in no small part, has those qualities himself. "I think the interesting thing, because of the legacy that was left before them, is that they recognize the success the group before them had—and I'm not just talking about wins and losses. I'm talking about the success they had as students, as people in the community, and as basketball players. I think they see that and recognize it, and feel a responsibility to uphold those standards.

Should the new group even come close to those levels, both on and off the court, Mountaineer fans might have a new standard of excellence to talk about in a few short years.

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