Wins and Perceptions

West Virginia's blowout win over Auburn was just the right medicine to remove the bad taste of last Saturday's football disappointment. Call this one a "Mouthwash Game" for Mountaineer Nation.

Although the basketball team's motivation to play well and get the win wasn't centered on helping the WVU fan base get over the ugly loss to Pitt last Saturday, it certainly had that effect. As the Mountaineers jumped out to an early 20-point lead, West Virginia fans were given something new to focus on. The leaps and bounds of Joe Alexander, the arcing threes of Alex Ruoff, the interior defensive rejections by Wellington Smith and John Flowers, and the all-around excellence of DaSean Butler combined to remind that West Virginia is not a one-trick pony when it comes to collegiate athletics.

Could the Mountaineer hoop team have played any better? It's hard to imagine, other than if it could have kept its focus in the final five or six minutes of the contest. But with the lead approaching 40 points and the celebration of a road win already underway, it's hard to fault WVU for that. Thirteen players saw action, which is always good for morale, especially when it comes against a "name" opponent.

I'm not going to pretend that Auburn is a challenger for the SEC title. The Tigers have depth issues, and were ripe to be plundered by an intense defense that has made a remarkable transformation in the half-year that head coach Bob Huggins has been aboard. However, any win away from home against a top tier conference is one to be enjoyed. The timing of the 88-59 beatdown just serves to enhance it a bit.

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And now, a few words about perceptions and how they affect your mood, the assessment of teams, and perhaps even your travel plans.

Coming into this football season, West Virginia was perceived by many to have at least a shot at the national championship. So, when the Mountaineers lost to South Florida, the perception was that the team had failed to live up to its potential. The same feeling was multiplied many times over when WVU clawed back into the race, only to stumble at the finish line. Now, for a sizeable segment of the fanbase, the 2007 season will be perceived as a failure, or at least as one that didn't meet expectations.

While I know I won't change many minds on that topic, let's look at things from an outside perspective for a moment. Who set those expectations – the ones that put the Mountaineers on that lofty perch – before the season even started? That's right, many of the same media outlets and talking heads that those same fans routinely excoriate whenever they say or write anything that can be remotely interpreted as anti-West Virginia. So why are those opinions given so much weight when they are good, yet trashed when they are bad? And more importantly, why are they allowed to set the bar as to what should constitute a good or a bad season before the first game is even played?

My psychology minor doesn't begin to cover all of this, but a couple of truths are evident even to me. The first is that we want to hear all the good things written and said about our team. The danger, however, is that too many of them may pile up outsized expectations. There's no way WVU could have exceeded its expectations for 2007, at least in the minds of many Mountaineer fans. It could only meet them, or fail.

This isn't to blame the media for what it publishes or the fans for the way they feel. The former is simply doing its job, while the latter suffers from human nature. There's no finger-pointing from this direction (I've heard enough ridiculous views to last a lifetime in the past few days.) It's simply to point out that judging a team based on preseason guesses and expectations doesn't yield a true picture of the team.

I'm not trying to excuse the loss to Pitt. Play that game 100 times with this year's teams, and the Mountaineers win about 98 of them. But that's not what happened, so indulging in "whatifs", as Patrick White calls them, doesn't help. However, I just can't call a ten-win regular season and a trip to a BCS Bowl a failed season, even with a loss to an archenemy. Disappointment that WVU squandered a chance to play for all the marbles? Absolutely. I've avoided watching ESPN all week. What the true tragedy would be, however, is if WVU lets the season finale carry over to the Fiesta Bowl.

It won't be easy to put that loss behind it. The Mountaineers let the disappointment of not going to the Gator Bowl affect their play in the Continental Tire Bowl loss to Virginia, and it's not easy to predict how young men will react to this situation. Hopefully, they won't let the perceptions that have been tossed around so cavalierly affect them either.

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If you think the preceding was full of beans, then you'll really love this one. The same dynamic, in reverse, could be unfolding with the Mountaineer basketball team, just as it did three years ago in its run to the Elite Eight. That team certainly wasn't expected to reach those heights, and when WVU just missed knocking off Louisville and advancing to the Final Four, there wasn't nearly the teeth-gnashing, wailing and rending of garments that we've heard this week. Why? Wasn't that loss just as bad as the Pitt loss? WVU let a 20-point lead melt away and missed a chance to advance to the Final Four.

True, it was still one step away from the national championship game, but the situations were at least fairly similar. The answer, of course, is in those dratted perceptions. No one thought West Virginia could get that far, so when the did, and finally lost, the curse of expectations was nowhere to be found. Thus, there weren't statements being made about the loss killing the program or defining it for years to come. There was sadness, sure, but without all the angst that has permeated the Mountain State this week.

Might the same thing be unfolding on this year's hoop team? I'm definitely not predicting it, but if WVU does make the NCAA tournament and win a couple of games, the season will no doubt be deemed a success. Why? Because the expectations for this team weren't off the map. Should West Virginia get to a 20-win year and make some noise in the NCAAs, it won't matter how the season ends, or who finally knocks the Mountaineers out of the tournament. The season will be proclaimed a success by many, in large part due to those preseason perceptions.

My point in all this? Part of it is in response to the many ridiculous comments I've seen in recent days concerning the football program. This was not "a program defining moment" as some have maintained. It was a devastating loss, but it was one game. It was an upset that knocked WVU out of a chance to play for the national title, and that can't be minimized. But what those myopic individuals fail to understand is that this sort of thing happens every year. And it happens to programs that compete at this level routinely. Only one team sins the national title, and only two play for it. The rest of the teams in the top 10 or 15 almost routinely have an inexplicable loss on the schedule.

In the final analysis, the Pitt loss will only have huge implications if fans, and much more importantly, players and coaches, allow it to. There's no doubt that it hurts. The timing, the perceptions, the opponent and the way in which WVU lost all contributed to that. But I'd much rather be a program that is in the position to suffer such a loss than one that is simply playing out the string each season.

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