There was a point during West Virginia's 2007-08 season when everything seemed to come together for the Mountaineers.
"You could kind of tell with how the season ended," admitted junior forward Da'Sean Butler. "It clicked. At the end of the year, everybody knew what do to and what they needed to do from the starting five all the way down to (walk-on guard) Cam Payne. Everybody knew what they were doing, and if someone had a mistake, everyone on the bench could see and help them correct it."
On offense, West Virginia found a go-to scorer in Joe Alexander, whose rise to stardom not only helped Alexander leap into the lottery of the 2008 NBA Draft, but also helped to free up open looks for other players on the team. The more attention defenses had to give Alexander, the more wide open others became.
On defense, the Mountaineers mirrored the intensity and persistence of head coach Bob Huggins, not allowing many open looks or easy baskets, and holding opponents to one shot as often as possible.
From a chemistry standpoint, everything came together both on and off the court.
Even with the departures of Alexander, point guard Darris Nichols, and center Jamie Smalligan, there is plenty of reason for optimism inside the new-look WVU Coliseum this season. Last year is now a memory. The objective beginning Friday when the Mountaineers start preseason practice is continued growth.
"Nothing but up, honestly," said Butler, a key cog in West Virginia's success over the past two seasons. "It doesn't feel like we lost much if anything because we have basically the same team coming back. We lost our two seniors, but they graduated and that's what seniors do. We lost a great player early (to the NBA), but we have four good players coming in. A majority of the team is still here. Everybody is looking forward to playing and I see nothing but an incline in front of us."
For once, Butler noted, the Mountaineers had a somewhat-normal offseason. Two summers ago, the Mountaineers were looking for ways to replace a successful senior quintet which had enjoyed consecutive deep runs through the NCAA Tournament. Seven freshmen, including Butler, entered the program.
The summer of 2006 was spent simply learning how to deal with the day-to-day responsibilities of being a college athlete from lifting to going to class to learning Beilein's unorthodox but effective offensive and defensive philosophies.
Beilein's departure for Michigan in the spring of 2007 meant that the Mountaineers would have to spend that summer getting used to a new way of life inside the program under the guidance of accomplished coaching alum Bob Huggins.
This summer? No massive roster turnover, and no new coaches. Just business as usual. The continuity has been a welcomed change, according to Butler.
"It feels good, you know, just to know that everything around the program is stable and contained," he said. "Everybody is looking forward to the year. We have four new players – three freshmen and a transfer – and we all cannot wait for the season to start and for practice to start. Everybody is excited, and we are all looking forward to the season.
Instead of getting used to Huggins's style of play and style of coaching, the Mountaineers can simply pick up where they left off.
"We have a team familiar with the plays and everything like that," Butler said. "It won't be like, you know, coming into practice on the first day and we have to all learn new plays. We can show other players now how to learn it. We're trying to get everybody meshed together, and that shouldn't be hard. We have a lot of good guys that want to learn, so it shouldn't be hard.
"Everything feels the same," he continued. "We have the same team, we have the same coach, and I'm happy about that. Everything is good. This is great."