The same could be said for teams like Slippery Rock, and upcoming opponents The Citadel and University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. Neither Mount St. Mary's, nor Canisius are world-beaters, but they're definitely a step up from the four teams mentioned above. With the hot 8-1 start that West Virginia has jumped out to, some pundits are questioning whether the Mountaineers should have scheduled some harder foes to begin the season. If he had to do it over again, though, head coach John Beilein says he would stick with his original plan for scheduling this season.
"We wouldn't be like this right now," he said. "We've got to be in a situation where we're getting better and better. Sure, it would be nice to have some close games that we won, but we just can't look at it like that right now. That tournament in Orlando could have been against the Montana team that everyone expected to win their league, and then Virginia Tech, and then Arkansas. It would have been a great thing. Going up to Duquesne has usually been a three-point game every year. North Carolina State was supposed to be good too. And on top of all that, we've got UCLA coming up in February. We've got enough non-conference games, but it would have been crazy to go out and schedule like we did last year."
With Big East play starting in less than two weeks, the Mountaineers still have plenty of work to do. These early games accomplish two things: first, they provide opportunities for early wins. Winning is contagious, and breeding a winning attitude on a young team builds confidence, which will certainly be important in Big East games.
The key for West Virginia will be how it responds to a loss, or more specifically a string of losses. It's going to happen, and when it does it will be the first time for many of these players that they'll go through something like that. They've gained a lot of experience with these early games, but not everything can be learned at once, no matter who is scheduled.
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Heading into the game against Savannah State, one of the questions was how the Mountaineers would respond to having a week-long layoff. It was the second such break in three games, as the Blue and Gold had a ten-day break between the loss to Arkansas in the Old Spice Classic Finals and the win over North Carolina State on December 6. After last weekend's win over Duquesne, the Mountaineers had an altered practice schedule to coincide with final exams. Thus, there was lingering concern over whether or not they would be ready for Saturday's game.
According to the players, though, the layoff didn't bother them a bit.
"We were just more excited to play to tell the truth," said senior center Rob Summers. "All week, everyone's just been looking forward to playing again. We love going out there when the lights come on, and the fans come in. It was great to be out there again."
Added junior big man Jamie Smalligan, "It's not fun having six straight practices in a row, because when you don't have a game it feels like (head coach John Beilein) will basically kill your legs for a few days. It's a good time to get better, though. We need it."
West Virginia will only have had three days off between games when they take the court on Wednesday night. Following that, they have another week off prior to the game against UMES, and then a quick one day turnaround for the Connecticut Huskies.
"We don't like the layoffs, because we'd rather have a game, then two or three days of prep, and then another game," says Summers.
Hmmm. Wonder if they'll be whistling that same tune once they get into conference play, or during February's brutal five day stretch that includes games against Pitt, UCLA, and Georgetown? We shall see.
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As for Smalligan, he had one offensive possession during Saturday's contest which may not have been as crisp as Beilein would have liked, but still turned out pretty good. At one point in the second half, the Butler transfer took a pass on the left wing, but then froze as if he forgot the play or set that the Mountaineers were running. Having missed handoff opportunities to fellow teammates, Jamie found himself wide open. So, he did what any shooter would do: put it up. Luckily for Smalligan, the shot swished through the net.
"Our whole system is based on not turning the ball over, so I had to do something. I turned to the basket and told myself ‘well, I just messed up for the second possession in a row' but I was so wide open that I just shot it."
Sure, the ball went in, but the play is almost a lock to be brought up in film study this week. Smalligan, ever the optimist, sees it as a best-case scenario.
"It's definitely something I'll learn from, I know that," he said. "That's the nice thing about games like this: we make mistakes, but they're things we can improve on and they didn't cost us the game.
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Between now and the time that classes reconvene at the University on January 8, the Mountaineers will have five home games. Having no students on campus certainly makes getting around town easier, as not every nook and cranny will be crammed tight with traffic. (That big gust you just felt was the sigh of relief coming from year-round residents of Morgantown). All kidding aside, it's a good time for the team too as they can focus solely on basketball.
"This is a really good time for us to work on all the little things that we can do to get better that maybe we wouldn't get a chance to work on otherwise," said senior forward Frank Young.
"It's definitely fun when it's all about basketball," added Summers. "It's kind of like playing professionally if you think about it, because there's nothing else going on for us but basketball. This is when we need to get better, and work on playing as a team."