Starting Over in Morgantown


Nov. 10, 2006

By Bryan Armen Graham



Bryan is a basketball editor for and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
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There might not be a more dramatic rebuilding project in college basketball than the one John Beilein is overseeing in Morgantown, W.Va. But the fifth-year coach of the Mountaineers isn't complaining.


"This is what I enjoy most about coaching, actually," said Beilein, a 28-year veteran on the sidelines following successful stints at LeMoyne, Canisius and Richmond. "I really like the process more than I like the results. And we are in the process now."


Four of the program's longtime starters -- J.D. Collins, Mike Gansey, Joe Herber and seven-footer Kevin Pittsnogle -- have moved on. Top reserve Patrick Beilein also graduated last spring. Those five players accounted for 71.6 percent of West Virginia's offense from this past season.


Just two players that averaged more than four minutes a game return for a team that has made deadly serious challenges for the last two national championships. Two years ago, the Mountaineers surrendered a 20-point lead to Louisville in their Elite Eight battle before suffering an agonizing overtime loss. Last year, John Beilein's club advanced to the Sweet 16 before bowing to Texas on a buzzer-beater.


One of the more notable special preparation teams in the Big East, the Mountaineers have became known for their unorthodox, free-flowing approach to offense and defense. Beilein has installed an amorphous flex offense designed to take what the defense gives you. Their fine-tuned defense has been a cerebral 1-3-1 matchup zone that keeps the opposition in fits. Both schemes are "feel-based" and best run by athletes that have played within the system for a number of years -- as had so many of last year's Mountaineers.


"It's just the way I've coached," Beilein said of the flex system. "I started coaching 32 years ago but, in about 1987, I sort of changed how we played. So now it's been 19 years that we've been playing this style that I've developed with a lot of my coaches."


And so the obvious question is: What now?


Beilein thinks this institutional identity that has been forged in his four seasons at the helm of the Mountaineers is serving the program well. Rather than recruiting players and selling them on the system later, Beilein has found that prepsters are aware of what West Virginia does -- and he can recruit players to his style.


"They cling to the identity of our basketball because our kids are proud of it," Beilein said. "I think that eight of our new players saw us on CBS over the last couple years and the NCAA Tournament and that's what attracted them to come to us."


A number of the newcomers will be expected to make immediate contributions.


Rhode Island native Joe Mazzula, a 6-foot-2 southpaw, should see considerable time at the point from the get-go. Swingman Devan Bawinkel, an Illinois product, averaged 24.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.4 steals as a senior at Winnebago High. Da'Sean Butler, a Bloomfield Tech (N.J.) grad, is a versatile 6-foot-8 forward who will compensate for his limited offensive punch with rebounding and defense. Fellow New Jersey product Wellington Smith gives Belilein another strong option on the interior.


But with all of the first-year players expected to share the load, Beilein will lead heavily on his one returning player with considerable experience in the trenches: Frank Young, a 6-foot-5 swingman who averaged 7.4 points and 3.5 rebounds.


The senior forward was just the team's fifth leading scorer last season but had always been a behind-the-scenes hero during the team's recent success.


"I point to this guy all the time," said Beilein, nodding toward Young. "He came in with probably the least acclaim of the other three or four [freshmen], and he's the one that's the senior right now, the captain of the team who has played in big games and has been a big reason why we win. He was the most patient of all the freshmen. None of those other freshmen are still at West Virginia -- he's the only one playing big-time basketball right now."


Though Beilein is satisfied with the hand he's been dealt, the veteran coach is aware of the challenges that lie ahead as his team's Friday night opener against Mount St. Mary's looms.


"It is the most athletic group we've ever had," Beilein said. "But whether that turns into wins, we will see."



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