Thoughts, observations and random musings during the midst of an off-week for the Mountaineer football team.
It's far too early to be making any judgments about the 2007-08 version of the WVU men's basketball team. There will certainly be a lot of learning going on throughout the season. However, there were a few observations to be made from the Mountaineer Madness event and the comments of head coach Bob Huggins during the first weeks of practice.
There was a lightness, an air of playfulness, around the men's team at Mountaineer Madness that was good to see. That's not to say that the men's team didn't have fun over the previous few years, but the smiles and kidding that was evident in even the brief Friday night session was plain to see. Individuals cheered on their teammates in the competitions, and even a ferocious dunk by Wellington Smith over Jamie Smalligan brought laughs and playful kidding from both participants as well as hoots from their peers. I don't know whether or not this will result in extra wins this year, but it certainly won't hurt.
The women's basketball team could be good. No, make that really good. Maybe even great. With the top seven players returning and an influx of new talent, head coach Mike Carey will finally get to run the way he wants too. Look for more uptempo offense and full court defense by the Mountaineers, who could be primed for a deep tournament run. Early picks in several Top 25 polls won't allow the Mountaineers to sneak up on anyone, however.
The wildcard for the women will be Meg Bulger, returning from the awful knee injury that sidelined her throughout the 2006-07 season. Bulger's return to form physically is near completion, even though she still sports a massive knee brace and wrap during practices. The mental challenge that remains, however, is still a work in progress. Like just about any other athlete that suffers a serious injury, Bulger has to be confident that the twice-surgically repaired joint will hold up under the most stressful of game conditions. Some players achieve that goal quickly, while some can take a bit longer.
Witness football player Mortty Ivy, who returned to the football field last year, but clearly wasn't playing at 100% in either regard. In any sport where contact and collisions occur (and don't think for a minute that basketball isn't included there) athletes have to play without fear of re-injury or doubt about their ability to take a hit. When Ivy got all those things behind him, he began performing at an all-league level. The same will be true for Bulger once she makes sharp cuts without thinking or gets knocked down and pops back up.
It's time to call a halt on the use of the phrase "So-and-so controls its own destiny". By definition, you can't control destiny (the inevitable fate to which a person or thing is bound). Destiny is going to happen, no matter what you do. (Unless you are George McFly, in which case it is your density.)
Of course, relying on the media to halt the spread of an insidious phrase is like depending on Britney Spears for parenting advice. I've seen or heard at least 20 occurrences of this phrase since South Florida lost to Connecticut last weekend, and it's grating on me more than the phrases "step up" and "the next level" have in the past – and that's saying a lot. And I'm not even going to get started on interviewers who start an interview with "Talk about…" No, don't talk about it. Ask them a question! But I digress.
I won't leave you hanging without an alternative to the oxymoronic "controlling your own destiny". How's this: "West Virginia now controls its future after defeating Rutgers"?
Did you notice that WVU is now fifteenth in the nation in rushing defense? Or fifth in pass defense. Or third in the nation in total defense? Or, most importantly, fourth in the land in scoring defense? If not, you should. And two points need to be made here.
First, it shows that there is no fundamental problem with the 3-3-5 defense, or with West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's implementation of it. A flawed scheme, or bad teaching, simply could not produce the kind of results that Casteel's troops have rung up this year. All of those calling for his head, or for a return to a more conventional front, are hereby sentenced to 24 consecutive hours of Lou Holtz' pep talks on ESPN.
Second, West Virginia's lofty rankings don't automatically mean that the 3-3-5 is the greatest scheme ever contrived, or that every team should automatically switch to it. If you haven't caught on by now, let me beat you over the head with it. There are no magic systems or plays. Great performances are the result of a variety of factors: good talent, effective coaching/teaching, and tactical adjustments to what your opponent is doing. You can occasionally win without one of those elements, or with them far out of balance, but you can't be consistent. Casteel and company are developing excellence in all three phases, and that's why West Virginia is in the stratosphere of the NCAA rankings. And, might I add, deservedly basking in the glow.
There have to be dozens, if not hundreds, of former players that could do an excellent job as football analysts or commentators. So why do people like Jesse Palmer get those jobs? Because he was on The Bachelor?
I'm getting asked more and more what bowl I think West Virginia will end up in. Of course, a lot of that depends on which two teams (and leagues) wind up in the national championship game, so the odds change from week to week. The Orange is always going to be a contender, due to proximity if nothing else, so you couldn't go wrong in making that your pick. However, given my choice (and if the title game were out of the picture), I'd love to go to the Rose Bowl. It would be a great new experience, and seeing the Mountaineers take the field in Pasadena would be an awesome spectacle. I know that's probably the least likely bowl that WVU could appear in, but it's not out of the question.