Take the situation regarding highly-touted running back Noel Devine. The North Fort Myers, Fla. product hasn't played a down of post-secondary football yet, and people around the country are already holding his every move under a microscope. News broke from various outlets earlier this week that Devine had given a verbal committment to sign with West Virginia following an official visit to Morgantown this past weekend.
When Wednesday rolled around, it leaked that after a long talk with mentor Deion Sanders, Devine had opted not to sign a letter of intent at all on National Signing Day. (Note: repeated attempts to contact Devine were unsuccessful). That news was greeted with negativity on our message boards. People were questioning whether or not Devine had the "right intentions" all along, or whether he was just in it for the attention. Likewise, fans were outraged that Sanders -- a future member of the NFL Hall of Fame -- would have the audacity to get involved in the first place.
Sanders reportedly favors Devine going to prep school for a year to get his grades in order, and make a more thought out decision with regards to his collegiate choice. Needless to say, that wasn't the news that Mountaineer fans wanted to hear. Thus they were ripping Sanders up one side and down the other for "pushing Devine away from WVU." This is the issue which I hope to address in this space.
Deion (left) and Devine
First of all, nowhere in the reports was Sanders quoted as saying he was against Devine coming to West Virginia. Second, why is it anyone else's business what advice Sanders gives to Devine? It's been chronicled over and over that Sanders and Devine have a very close relationship. Though he's only a high school senior, Devine has grown up under some very adverse conditions. Before he was even a teenager, both of his parents had died. In Sanders, Devine has a mentor and confidant who will lend a listening ear.
I'm not asking you to like Deion Sanders. I'm not even asking you to like Noel Devine. What I am asking you to do is remember that he is still just a kid. Yes, he's a great football player, but he's also a kid who has been through more in his young life than most go through in 50 years.
Too often we think of recruits as only football players, and forget that they are also young men. As Devine's situation evolves, let's all try to remember that, no matter what his final decision is.
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And now, for something completely different.
Wednesday night's loss to the Pitt Panthers illustrated that while West Virginia's young team is very good, there is still a long way to go for them to reach the type of success that the program acheived in the past two seasons. Afterwards, WVU players and coaches lauded how complete the Panther team was on both ends of the court.
While center Aaron Gray gets much of the national attention, the Panthers are more than just a one man team. In the past four meetings with West Virginia, though, one Pitt player has been literally leaps and bounds above the rest when facing the Mountaineers.
Sophomore forward Sam Young hasn't been around the Oakland campus for long, but Mountaineer fans would happily wave him goodbye already. In four contests against West Virginia, Young has averaged better than 14 points per game. On Wednesday night, the Clinton, Md. native scored a career-high 21 points on 10-14 shooting from the floor.
Last season, Young averaged nearly eight points per game on his way to being named to the Big East All-Rookie Team. This season, he was averaging just five points per game coming into the contest against West Virginia.
Still, the Mountaineers seem to bring out the best in Young, who was recruited by West Virginia out of high school. While he still has plenty of games remaining against West Virginia, Young has already joined an elite group of Mountaineer opponents that I'd like to refer to as the "Wayne Smith All-Stars."
You may remember Wayne Smith from his days playing for Duquesne in the late 1990's. Though he was a solid player every game, he seemed to be particularly great against the Mountaineers. In four career games against the Blue and Gold, Smith averaged 19 points and seven rebounds per contest while finishing with a personal 3-1 record against Gale Catlett's Mountaineers.
Another member of this team is James Madison's David Fanning. Though his record of 1-3 against the Mountaineers wasn't as good as Smith's, Fanning was equally frustrating for Mountaineer fans to watch. His average of 14.25 points per game may not be impressive at first glance, but throw out the game in his freshman season when Fanning was still learning his way and that number jumps to an even 19 points per game. Fanning's best outing against the Mountaineers came in a 91-75 spanking at the "Electric Zoo" during the 2001-2002 season, when he scored 29 points and grabbed six rebounds. Ironically, that performance came exactly two weeks prior to an upset at the hands of Smith and the Dukes.
The third member of the team is Northeastern's Marcus Barnes, who shredded John Beilein's team for 31 points in a 91-84 win over West Virginia at the start of the 2003-2004 season.
If Young continues to play this well against West Virginia over the next couple of seasons, we will almost certainly have to change the team's name to the "Sam Young All-Stars."
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Finally, Saturday's game against UCLA will be the final match-up in a two-game series between the two schools. Last January, I had the pleasure of flying out to the City of Angels to watch the Mountaineers defeat the Bruins thanks in no small part to Mike Gansey. Given the success that Gansey had against Ben Howland's troops last season, perhaps he should sit behind their bench this weekend instead of sitting in his usual seat behind the Mountaineer bench. It would certainly help from a karma standpoint. Can you imagine the looks on the faces of Bruin players if they walked back to their bench for the first media timeout and Gansey was sitting less than 10 feet away?
Moving on to this year's game, I've said all season that I really like West Virginia's chances against the Bruins on Saturday. Yes, the Bruins are a Final Four-caliber team. Yes, they return several key cogs of a team that went all the way to the national finals last season. Let's keep these next few facts in mind, though.
FACT: The Bruins had a hard-fought victory on Wednesday night against cross-town rival USC.
FACT: The game tips at 1:00 here, which is 10:00 AM back on the West Coast. Last season's game at UCLA tipped at 12:45 PST, which was 3:45 back in West Virginia.
FACT: The Bruins have to fly across country, lose three hours, and arrive in a town where the average temperature has been roughly 100 below zero all week, and has seen inches of snowfall come and go throughout the past ten days.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the Mountaineers are going to pull one of the biggest upsets of the college basketball season. I'm simply pointing out that several intangibles seem to point in West Virginia's favor.
The key questions for the Bruins to answer are whether point guard Darren Collison will be comfortable attacking West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone, and whether the UCLA defense will be ready for West Virginia's read-and-react offense from the start. In last year's contest, the Mountaineer offense spent the first half carving up what is normally one of the nation's best defenses with a variety of backdoor cuts and long distance bombs. Doing that again this year would be huge from a confidence standpoint for the young Mountaineer players coming off of their first home loss of the season.
One final point about Saturday's game. Although they haven't won a title in 12 years, the UCLA program still has a special mystique about it. I wasn't around for the John Wooden era, but I couldn't help but be overwhelmed with all the tradition that surrounded me at and around Pauley Pavilion last winter. With this year's game being in the Mountain State, several Mountaineer fans have remarked to me that it will be neat to see the familiar powder blue Bruin uniforms at the Coliseum on Saturday. In college sports, tradition seldom dies, and it's still alive and well in Westwood.