West Virginia fans have been patient with John Beilein, but following 14-15 and 17-14 seasons, they're beginning to lose that patience. It didn't help that leading scorer Drew Schifino was kicked off the team last January, and point guard Tyler Relph also hit the road.
But with talented Tyrone Sally and shot-blocker extraordinaire D'or Fischer returning, and the addition of ex-St. Bonaventure standout Mike Gansey, expectations have risen.
"A lot will be determined by the chemistry of this team," Beilein says. "The first year, it was fairly simple. We didn't have a lot of bodies. Last year the chemistry was good -- but not good enough to retain everybody. People left. To win in college basketball today, you've got to have unbelievable talent or unbelievable chemistry."
WVU may be able to feed off its 2004 NIT run. Sally stepped up when Schifino stepped off. Gansey is expected to help both with his scoring and energy level. And Beilein simply loves the game of incoming guard Darris Nichols.
The Mountaineers also have the extra work afforded them by an August tour of Europe.
As always, though, WVU faces a loaded Big East. The team also travels to NC State and LSU.
FRONTCOURTWest Virginia will boast one of the Big East's best centers in Fischer, a 6-foot-11 shot-blocker with a nice shooting touch. "D'or is a major factor," Beilein says. "His shot-blocking -- whether we're in man or zone -- is a tremendous asset."
Fischer needs to get tougher on the offensive side. The senior has plenty of shooting ability, but he must develop a mean streak if he wants to play for pay after his time at WVU.
Kevin Pittsnogle, who backs up Fischer and also plays forward, saw his production drop while he rotated between positions. He struggled mightily with his perimeter defense. Freshman Luke Bonner could back up Fischer and allow Pittsnogle to concentrate on the forward spot.
Sally is the team's premier forward. Known as a defender before last season, the 6-7 senior assumed an offensive leadership role and was voted team MVP. And Sally has added bulk, too; he's up from a sophomore weight of 187 to 210.
Gansey is the proverbial X factor. He can play either forward spot and is not only a serious rebounding threat but can also step out and hit the 3-pointer. Beilein is hoping the opposition will have matchup problems with the junior. "Also," says the coach, "Mike's energy level is something we haven't had here."
BACKCOURTWVU needed an infusion of Big East talent in the backcourt. Beilein thinks he got it in Nichols, who can go to the hoop, pull up for a mid-range jumper or shoot the 3-pointer. And while Beilein waits for Nichols to develop, he has some veterans -- J.D. Collins, Jo Herber and Patrick Beilein, the coach's son -- to lean on. "We'll show continued improvement there," Beilein says. "We have the three rising juniors with a lot of minutes behind them. We're getting better all the time."
Collins battled Relph for playing time last season and refused to make waves. That attitude scored points with the coach. Collins also scored more points on the floor, keeping opposing defenses stretched. A good defender, Collins is a solid -- if unspectacular -- all-around guard. His assist-to-turnover was better than 2-to-1.
Herber, a big, tough off-guard, needs to improve his 3-point shooting and aggressiveness. But his versatility has made him a key player.
Patrick Beilein gives WVU a shooter off the bench. Nick Patella, a walk-on, is expected to see playing time after redshirting a year ago.
FINAL ANALYSISThis team needs a spark, and it remains to be seen whether Gansey and Nichols can provide it.
"We'd like to play at a quicker speed, try to score more points, get easy baskets," says Beilein. "We've not run the way I'd like to run, but that's easier said than done. It's very important that our lead guards can push the ball a little bit more and that we run lanes harder. Tyrone Sally tried to do that better (last year) and Mike Gansey will do that immediately."
There are just too many "ifs" to be overly optimistic -- if Pittsnogle regains his freshman form; if Nichols makes a big impact; if Sally makes offensive strides; if Gansey is as good as advertised. More patience may be necessary.