A Study In Momentum

It was, perhaps, an odd pairing. But on Thursday afternoon, physics and basketball took center stage, as West Virginia University academics and athletics officials jointly celebrated the beginning of major renovations to White Hall and the start of construction on a new practice facility for both the men's and women's basketball programs.

An event titled "From Newton to Naismith" at the new Erickson Alumni Center on the Evansdale campus served as the "groundbreaking" ceremony, despite the fact that no dirt was moved on Thursday.

Well, at least it wasn't moved in front of the many donors, University officials and other community members in attendance.

A video shown at the ceremony featured MARVIN, a robot constructed as part of a project between the WVU physics department and local high schools, cutting a ribbon at White Hall (where a $33 million renovation is already ongoing) and digging a golden shovel into the dirt at the construction site for the basketball facility.

Speakers referred to the practice facility (which, at a price tag of nearly $19 million, is the largest single capital project undertaken by the West Virginia athletic department since the construction of Milan Puskar Stadium was completed in 1980) as something other schools will point to as "the best in the nation."

The reasons for that were myriad and simple.

WVU athletics officials, including men's basketball coach Bob Huggins, women's basketball coach Mike Carey and Assistant Athletic Director for Finance and Administration Russ Sharp toured the country in 2007, looking at the recently-constructed facilities at schools like Kentucky and Virginia to take the best of each and incorporate it into their new building.

As a result, they feel like they have the plans in place for a premier facility that they hope will raise the profile of both basketball programs.

"I think it makes a strong statement that we want to try to have competitive programs," said Sharp. "We want to provide the best facilities we can for our student athletes and our coaches and staff."

"My job, like everybody's job, is to give everybody the best resources they can have to do their jobs -- whether it's buying somebody a new computer or building a new study center or this kind of facility. It's all those things, and it makes a pretty strong statement that we're committed to be excellent."

Indeed, the sky was the limit when it came time to actually plan out the facility, which will be located between the WVU Coliseum and the Core Arboretum, running parallel to the Monongahela River.

Time and time again Thursday, the term "best in the nation" was used by coaches and administrators to describe the ambition for what the practice facility should be when it is completed in May of 2011.

"We want other universities to say, ‘If we're going to build one, let's go look at WVU and see what they have,'" said University President James P. Clements.

"It's from the look and feel of the courts, the meeting rooms, the study spaces. Sometimes when universities build practice facilities, they scale it down. We didn't want to do that. We wanted this to be special. When you build buildings, you don't want to look back 10 years later and say, ‘I wish we did this.'"

"You want it to be right. You want the classroom space. You want the coaches' office space. So in 10 years, we'll say, ‘This is still really good.'"

The plan calls for two full-sized practice gyms -- one each for the women's and men's teams. Those playing surfaces will, like the current Coliseum floor, be large enough to house one main court as well as extra baskets along each sideline, with enough room for a full 3-point arc at each.

A weight-training facility, locker rooms, a study facility for student-athletes, offices for the coaches and staff of both programs, a basketball "Hall of Traditions" and other amenities will also be included.

But for the coaches, it's the chance to have a practice area that they don't have to share with anyone else that is the biggest draw for the new facility.

"I think the biggest thing is having the two courts," said Carey, whose No. 8 women's basketball team is enjoying perhaps the best season in program history.

"To me, it's nice all the bells and whistles, all that stuff. But the bottom line is, we're going to have an area where we can practice and our players can get in there and get extra practice -- and we don't have to worry about time restraints. That's the biggest area with me."

Beyond that, the building also serves as another weapon in the Mountaineers' arsenal in the "facilities arms race" that has become increasingly competitive in the world of collegiate athletics.

That, according to Carey and Huggins, can only help in the recruiting wars.

"Believe me, we pushed this with recruits," Carey said. "We've shown pictures. We made up pictures -- whatever we had to do. So, we definitely pushed this for about two years, telling recruits there is a possibility we're going to have this great practice facility. Now, it's real, and we'll continue to push it with our recruits in the future."

"I think it's very impressive when you bring a recruit down here, because they don't expect these types of facilities in West Virginia, to be very honest with you. Then, you bring them here and show them not only the academic buildings, but the Coliseum, the football facilities, the Rec Center -- and now you're going to be able to show them the practice facility."

"Ours will be as nice as anywhere in the country, and there's no doubt in my mind recruits will be very impressed with it."

"When a recruit walks in, they're going to look around and go, ‘Wow. This is a big deal,'" Clements said. "So we're going to make it as good as we can."

The WVU athletic department, headed by Director of Athletics Ed Pastilong, had to deal with both sides of the recent economic slowdown.

On one hand, it made it more difficult for the Mountaineer Athletic Club to secure pledges for donations to the facility, as even the more well-off of West Virginia supporters began to watch their budgets a bit.

But once that process was completed, Pastilong and company actually benefited from the economic climate.

With major projects such as the basketball practice facility few and far between lately, construction firms have been offering lower and lower bids, in the hopes of keeping busy. That allowed WVU to complete the project at a slightly lower cost than originally anticipated -- while still building a first-rate facility.

"People want to keep their people working, so we're benefiting from all that," said Sharp. "I'd say the bids we got were well below what we thought they would be, and that's very positive. That's sort of a national trend."

"It's just that whole climate with contractors and construction across the country. It's very good if you're an owner and trying to get something built."

That has helped get the project started sooner than might otherwise be possible, as Pastilong said an additional $4 million still needs to be raised within the next 36 to 48 months to make sure that the entire facility is paid for.

"We felt that if we got within striking distance of the total amount needed, that we would begin the project," said Pastilong. "We would begin it because it's needed, and secondly, we felt the climate for construction was good. The other thing is our teams are winning. With all of those things, we just said, ‘Let's get her going.'"

With many of the school's programs enjoying success unlike any other period in their history, the addition of the practice facility for the basketball programs provides further momentum for both Carey and Huggins, according to the athletic director.

"This is a big project," Pastilong said. "It speaks volumes for the success our athletic department is having, and specifically the two basketball teams."

"This will enable us to have our student-athletes practice more conveniently. And, secondly, it will make a statement that we're striving to win a national championship with both our men's and women's basketball teams."

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