Musings of a Mountain Man - WVU Football, WVU Basketball, News - Mountaineer Sports

Musings of a Mountain Man

Wow, look at the calendar.
   It's time for us to leave.
   For a while, at least.
   We have reached what many of we Mountaineer faithful consider the sports off-season, the time between the close of the college basketball season and the start of the college football season.
   IT'S NOT THAT baseball isn't of interest. It's just that in baseball, the first few months of a season often are a preamble, especially now that so many teams make the playoffs.
   Plus, by the time the pennant races heat up, fall football practice has begun and NFL teams are deep into the preseason, so they all get woven into the fabric.
   Especially WVU football.
   Especially this year, breaking into the Big 12 and all.
   DON'T KNOW about you, but September and October are our two favorite sports months.
   Not only do they mark the beginning of the Mountaineer fans' sports season, all the the major sports are in full swing or in practice (basketball) for an early November start.
   We already are mightily anticipating next year, so here are a few observations about the football and basketball programs:
   FOOTBALL: It has been three months since the WVU football team ran it up big-time against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, to finish 10-3 and in the Top 20 of the college polls.
   By now, one would think that yours truly would have stopped routinely sticking a recording of the television voice broadcast of the game in the car CD recorder.
   No way.
   The first several days after the 70-33 track meet disguised as a football game, that CD was in a constant loop. For a couple of weeks after that, it was played every other day or so, then at least once a week.
   Haven't played it in a couple of weeks these days, but plan to very soon.
   POINT IS, we're still all atither about one of the Mountaineers' shining moments. What a way to end association with the Big East and start toward participation in the Big 12.
   As these words are being written, we seem to be at a time when -- as WVU Head Coach Dana Holgerson told a talking head during the giddy Orange Bowl post game celebration -- the future of the West Virginia University football program appears very bright.
   It is made all the brighter by WVU's successful and necessary escape from the Big East to the safer, more becoming confines of the Big 12 Conference.

   The belief here is that bailing from the Big East was crucial to ensure WVU's future place at college football's big boy's table.
   As we all know, football is the cash cow that provides the milk for most major college athletic programs.
   TO STAY in the Big East would have meant a severe challenge to Mountaineer football, and therefore, would have threatened Mountaineer athletics as a whole.
   The Big East -- ruled largely by basketball-first programs and whose commissioners all have come from league small cookie Providence University, including current head John Marinatto -- often showed signs of jealousy and pettiness toward football schools such as WVU.
   For proof of the pettiness, note that a TV promotion during this year's Big East basketball tournament honoring a number of recent tournament champions didn't include WVU's 2010 championship team, but did mention the 2009 and 2011 winners.
   We don't think that was an accident.
   The lack of a cohesive and coherent policy toward keeping football vital made it possible for league such as the Atlantic Coast Conference to raid the Big East -- which it did twice, to the tune of five Big East football programs.
   MOVING OUT of the Big East to the Big 12 is no doubt a blessing, but the upgrade in the level of football competition may make some WVU faithful curse.
   Yearly opponents such as Rutgers, UConn, Louisville and Cincinnati -- against whom WVU had more than a modicum of overall success -- are being replaced by the likes of Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU.
   Enough said.
   IT REMAINS TO BE SEEN IF WVU consistently can compete in the higher echelon of the Big 12, but it looks as if Holgerson has under his wing the elements of an auspicious conference debut.
   Much of the potent WVU offense that was a juggernaut in the Orange Bowl returns next season, led by one of the nation's top quarterbacks in Geno Smith and one of the nation's top receivers in Tavon Austin, who along with Stedman Bailey heads a deep and talented WVU receiving corps.
   Add to that the return of running backs Shawne Alston and Andrew Buie -- both Orange Bowl standouts -- and Dustin Garrison, who sat out the bowl game due to injury.
   Most of the offensive line returns, and it will add Parkersburg native Josh Jenkins, who missed all of last year with a knee injury incurred during last season's spring practice.
   THE MOUNTAINEER DEFENSE has some question marks.
   It will be up to incoming defensive co-coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson to install a 3-4 defense to replace the 3-3-5 structure utilized by departed longtime Mountaineer defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.
   Other than the reports that the 3-4 defense will feature more frequent use of four down linemen than did Casteel's scheme, it is hard for us to offer an insightful suggestion into how good next year's defense can be, considering there is are two new coordinators teaching a new concept to a unit hit somewhat hard by graduation.
   WE WILL SAY there appears to be enough talent on hand to cobble together a capable unit or more from just the leftovers from last year's defense, including Jorge Wright and Will Clarke on the line, Doug Rigg and Jared Barber at linebacker and Darwin Cook, Terrence Garvin, Brodrick Jenkins and Pat Miller at safety and cornerback, respectively.
   Depth will be important because of the high-octane, fast-paced offenses that proliferate the Big 12. Games in which teams run more than 80 plays are more the norm than the exception in the league and the ability to give defensive players a breather with capable back-ups is crucial for success.
   Add in the fact that WVU also has a big-play, quick-strike offense not prone under Holgerson to pursue time-consuming drives.
   Almost by necessity, the new defense likely will be more risk-taking and turnover-oriented than Casteel's defenses, which were based more on a bend-but-don't-break containment theory.
   If next year's Mountaineer defense can supplement the offense by being at least above average and can approach being good, we like WVU's chances of a very successful inaugural Big 12 season.
   A CLOSING FOOTBALL THOUGHT: As impressive as was WVU's bowl performance and season-ending run that featured a litany of big plays, they would not have happened without the biggest play of the season, bar none.
   That play was in the waning minutes of the Pitt game in Morgantown Nov. 25, when Smith completed a nine-yard first down pass to Austin with fourth down, seven yards to go deep in Pitt territory and WVU behind, 20-14.
   Two plays later, Shawne Alston ran for the go-ahead touchdown and the Mountaineers held on for a 21-20 win over the Panthers.
   Without the fourth down completion, the 'Eers likely lose to Pitt and the Orange Bowl would have been out of reach.
   It also was big in another way, because circumstances have dictated that WVU and Pitt may not meet on the gridiron for a while, and it's so much better to have won the last game in the long series.
   BASKETBALL: This one won't take as long because it is not as nuanced as the football situation.
   To paraphrase the old adage about the month of March, the past season's WVU basketball team started out like a lion and finished (in March) like a lamb.
   It stumbled mightily down the stretch -- losing nine of its last 13 games after a 15-5 start -- and then was humbled at the end in a disjointed 23-point first-round NCAA tournament loss to Gonzaga that wasn't as close as the score indicated.
   SIMPLY PUT, the Mountaineers fell apart at the end in a haze of discombobulation. It dampened, but didn't overshadow, an All-American season by star forward Kevin Jones.
   A lot of it can be attributed to season-ending injuries to freshman big men Pat Forsythe and Kevin Noreen, which hurt WVU's depth in the frontcourt.

   This especially applies to redshirt freshman Noreen, who was accumulating increased playing time.

   Noreen's absence took minutes out of the WVU rotation and forced center/forward Deniz Kilici to pace himself more than he otherwise would and also led to fatigue at the end of games, when the Mountaineers lost a number of games this past season.

   THE DEVELOPMENT OF WVU FRESHMEN Jabarie Hinds, Gary Browne and Aaron Brown -- who all showed promise this season -- appeared to hit a wall and perhaps even stagnate a bit toward the end of the year.
   The same can be said about the shooting touch of senior point guard Truck Bryant, who played a lot of minutes despite a long scoring drought he often made worse as he unsuccessfully tried to shoot his way out of it.
   This led to plenty of empty offensive minutes for Bryant -- and subsequently for WVU -- because he still piled up playing time due to his knowledge of Head Coach Bob Huggins' system and his defensive ability.


   WE BELIEVE THAT WVU basketball can rebound next season to play at a higher level, even though its experience level will be lower.
   This is because WVU's talent level will improve if reports about transfers Juwan Staten (point guard) and Aaric Murray (center) are true and highly anticipated freshmen shooting guards Terry Henderson and Eron Harris and power forward Elijah Harris live up to their billing.
   Finding a bona fide outside shooting threat or two in itself would make it easier to score because it would force the opposing defense to extend itself and not collapse inside and dare the Mountaineers to shoot from long range.
   Mix in the experience gained by Browne, Brown and Hinds and the return of Kilicli for his senior year and WVU has the potential ingredients for surprising success.
   LET US CONCLUDE this column and wrap up this past season's musings with a shout out to West Virginia Illustrated founder David Miller, who was the impetus and driving force behind this increasingly influential site.
   David's vision for WVI has been -- and is being -- realized, and he now has focused his fertile imagination in new directions, toward new challenges.
   We couldn't let him do that without a tip of our flying WV cap.
   So, without further ado -- adieu.
   Let's keep in touch.
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