The idea, when the schedule was first made, was to ease the young Mountaineers into conference play via a series of average foes. Head coach John Beilein had no idea his team would respond as well as it has – or at least has appeared to after playing only two teams with winning record thus far – and that his new-look starting lineup would mesh with each other and his core of eight freshman as effectively as it has. West Virginia has won four consecutive games after losing to Arkansas in the championship game of the Old Spice Classic and ranks among the nation's best in three major categories, including leading the nation in fewest points allowed per game, a statistic that will be severely tested against UConn.
"It will be up to guys like me, Darris (Nichols) and Rob (Summers) to get the young guys know that we have to get ready for Big East play right away," said senior forward Frank Young, the lone upperclassmen on the team who has spent his entire career at West Virginia. "It's a step up playing a team like UConn just two days later. The main thing I can tell them is that it is going to be a more physical game. You will be playing against some of the top players in the country night in and night out. You can't take a second off. It is real important to go in and get a win, then get some rest with us only having one day to prepare for the next game being UConn."
Increased physicality has been a focus of practices this week, especially once the team got back from its Holiday break on Dec. 26 and drilled for 2.5 hours. Beilein would be among the last to overlook any team, but he did spend more time working on the physical aspects of play than in the past, including a focus on rebounding and getting out quickly on the break to maximize any additional chances for easy points, teaching that seems directly suited to a UConn, Villanova, St. John's threesome than the Savannah State, Citadel, Maryland-Eastern Shore trio that ended the consecutive portion of the non-conference schedule. The physicality and transition game will be a key over the rest of the slate, when West Virginia plays all name foes except for Marshall.
"You tell them it is more physical. You tell them the players are much better," Nichols said. "But until you have experience it, you really don't know what it is like. It is going to take time for them to get used to."
Beilien noted that from here through the rest of the regular season schedule, teams have only about two days, on average, between games, and so the one-day turnaround between Maryland-Eastern Shore and Connecticut isn't much different. The Huskies, who must travel, have one more day as they play host to Coppin State tonight. West Virginia's final final tune-up, as most fans see it, is against a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team that has shot just 39 percent from the floor and 59 percent from the free throw line. At 60.8 points per game and little depth behind the starters, UMES will be among the weaker teams West Virginia has played this season. The Hawks do have four players which average more than 12 points per game, but just one after that who scores at a greater than two points per game clip.
"It's natural that they have been looking forward to the Big East schedule all year," said Beilein, who is 18-0 in December home games at WVU. "But that is my job as a coach to make sure we don't look past a practice, let alone a game. We have to work hard and sustain an effort everyday no matter the situation or next opponent. If we lose to Maryland-Eastern Shore it will be because they outplayed us, not because we overlooked them."
The Mountaineers have shown better energy and gotten their legs back after having three days off. The team appears ready to play, and all the minor, nagging injuries have healed. Beilein said he was anxious to see how WVU performed in the upcoming tests, especially the first three at home before the Jan. 9 Big East road opener at Notre Dame.
"You get into a mode now," Beilein said. "We have practiced more this season already than what we have left. We need to play ball right now. We really have not seen (what we are about to) in any of our games. (UMES) has had some blowout losses, but recently has played well. They have good guard quickness. We will have to match that."