Long Trail

West Virginia's Tuesday night loss to UConn was a grinding war of attrition. The Mountaineers acquitted themselves quite well in the battle, and showed they can hold their own with one of the top teams in the nation. Can they continue to do so over the next two months?

The quick answer that comes to those familiar with the Mountaineer program is "Yes". Head coach Bob Huggins demands toughness from his players, and he never voices concern over the readiness of his players to put up 37 or 38 minute in a game, or their ability to battle against any opponent. However, after watching more bodies hit the floor than in your average judo contest, the question has to be asked.

West Virginia's players certainly won't back down from the challenge. They have gained strength under new coach Andy Kettler's system, and think they will be able to maintain, and even improve their conditioning as the season goes along. They're going to need it, because the toll of games like the one they played on Tuesday night will be a cumulative one. And for a team already wracked with injuries, the lineup is already a bit thin. Based on the UConn game, WVU will be going with an eight-man rotation during league play, barring the return of Joe Mazzulla or Jonnie West. That doesn't leave any wiggle room in terms of playing time or rotation adjustments.

To their credit, the players aren't using that as an excuse. And they appear determined to wear down their foes, rather than the other way around.

"It's the toughest conference in the country. We just have to keep on playing," Wellington Smith noted afterward. "We took UConn down to the wire. I feel like we can. We're not as good as we're going to be either. I feel like that if we come to play, we will be fine. We can make a run at this, do well in the Big East, and even go further in the NCAA.

WVU's rowdiest player, Cam Thoroughman, is even more confident. The rugged forward, who mixes it up more than Betty Crocker, looks at the road ahead with relish.

"I think we can play 16 more games like this," Thoroughman said of the league schedule. "I know I can. I'm ready for it, and Coach Huggins will make sure we are."

The outlook of the players is of one view – they can battle through the rugged league games to come and not only achieve respectability, but also excel and challenge for one of the top spots in the league. Talk, of course, is one thing, while actually doing is another. WVU's freshman trio got their first taste of the tough side of the Big East conference, and the performance of the trio was what one might expect from those getting their baptism in a different style of play.

"We're facing 22-year-old men," head coach Bob Huggins summed up succinctly after the game. We're getting unbelievable mileage out of three freshmen. Twenty-two year old guys are a lot more physical and are a lot stronger.

"We're not big enough, and we're not strong enough," Huggins added. "We have to do everything right in order to win."

While the execution implied by Huggins last statement can't be argued with, it can also be said that it is the second step to a successful season. The first will be staying healthy and not wearing down under the load of facing top 25 teams night after night – most of which are bigger and stronger than the talented, yet undersized, Mountaineers. There's no doubt that Huggins includes conditioning in the "do everything right" statement, but there's probably a little luck involved there as well. West Virginia has been, overall, a very healthy team over the past few seasons. This year, injuries and ailments appear to be coming at a more frequent pace. Those, combined with the natural wear and tear of the longest Big East season in history, figure to be one of West Virginia's chief challenges in 2009.

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