Fill In The Bubble

This is a test. A final, really, and one that could determine both West Virginia's postseason worthiness and what it has learned over the off week.

If John Beilein's hunch is correct, and judging by past success it is, then the Mountaineers (20-7, 8-6 Big East) got their mental and physical break exactly when needed. WVU jacked up 41 3-pointers against Providence, missing 32, the number, according to Beilein, it should have taken. It lost focus defensively. It didn't run through sets efficiently and the blowups at times came more often than once per possession.

Signs of a tired basketball team. The Big East allows each of its 16 teams one full off week during the season. That early slate padded with home games against Connecticut, Villanova and St. John's quickly delved into an eight-week march with six of eight contests away at one point. And then West Virginia had to face Pitt, UCLA and Georgetown, all now rated within the nation's best dozen teams and off the precarious bubble upon which WVU is perched. The cry is that the Mountaineers are flailing here, treading water while not moving much as others sweep past with key road wins. But West Virginia has yet to lose any game it was not supposed to in the six-game Murder's Row and indeed is still very much alive in the NCAA Tournament realm while readying for a huge game at No. 12 Pitt (24-5, 11-3) Tuesday at 7 p.m.

So it was time to take stock. Find the problems, root out the causes and eliminate them, if possible, or at least try to negate the worst while reminding the team why it wins games. West Virginia's foe versus Providence was as much itself as the Friars. So instead of scheming for Pitt, WVU challenged its toughest opponent to date – itself.

"We had what I call a little mini-camp on Thursday and Friday," Beilein said. "We had a lot of work in getting back to West Virginia basics. It wasn't a whole lot about Pitt. There are two elements. We had to get some rest and we did rest the day after the Providence game (Wednesday) and they had all day Saturday off without having to do anything. Then just to go back to the basic stuff of what we do."

The coaching staff reviewed film, tweaking offensive sets and defensive looks just enough to make West Virginia more effective and give opponents yet another adjustment while not confusing its own players. They waded through the grit and slop of lazy passes, poor dribbles and bad decisions. They watched the hoisted threes taken at bad times or with bad looks, shots that were not part of even the 50-50 mantra that Beilein preaches. And then came the Panthers, the Sunday session being an even split between WVU working on itself and its rival. That was chased by Monday's all-about-Pitt training with rejuvenated West Virginia now able to do the one thing it didn't in the last meeting between the teams: Play physical.

"We were clawing back and clawing back the whole time," Beilein said of the 60-47 home loss on Feb. 7. "We didn't give up. I think we learned a lot from that game, because I think we played with much more intensity against UCLA. Against Pitt, or at Pitt, you better be on your best. They didn't let us do that."

Center Aaron Gray pushed West Virginia around inside, while Sam Young, a 6.3 point-per-game player who has come off the bench to average 15 points in his last three games against WVU, poured in 21. The Mountaineers were battered physically and they took it like a team playing its fourth game in 11 days. This time there are no excuses for exposing the soft underbelly of the 1-3-1 to allow a team to shoot 52 percent from the floor while also scoring a season-low in points on offense. The time has been there to improve, and WVU normally does. It might not beat Pitt, but it should play better, smarter and tougher – all one can ask versus an excellent rival on the road.

"Any road win against one of the top teams in your conferences is huge for a team sitting on the bubble like everybody says we are," Beilein said. "We also have Cincinnati on Saturday. To get 10 wins in the league would be an exceptional year and put us in position. We have seven wins outside of our Coliseum. There are not too many teams that have seven wins away. And we're, what, 2-5 in the league? You go 3-5 on the road in the Big East and you're having a pretty good year."

It is the last true road game of the year for West Virginia. Beilein has beaten 17 ranked teams in his four-plus seasons at WVU; 12 of those have come on the road.

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Beilein, on the Big East: "Last year the muddled area was really more eight through 15. Now it looks very much five through 12. I think it is a very strong league compared to what people thought. They don't have a lot of 9-7 teams in fifth place, sixth place, seventh place.

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On Young: "He has killed us every time we have played them. His overall league stats are very good, but they are exceptional against us. We spent a lot of time last year on (Carl) Krauser and Gray and (Ronald) Ramon, who is such an excellent shooter. But Young is a guy who has been a Mountaineer killer since he laid foot on that campus. We have some things that we do just to try to stop certain people, but it's mostly to make sure that people are in position to give help on him."


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