The Climbing Mountaineers
West Virginia is the surprise of the Big East
Florida State learns a hard ACC lesson
The cockiest Cowboy
The national spotlight has rarely swung toward the mountains of Morgantown, W.Va., in the dead of winter. But it did so last Saturday when circumstances—namely a few convincing upsets—conspired to make the showdown between unranked Miami and No. 25 West Virginia the Big East's premier matchup so far this season.
Both the Mountaineers, who had beaten Georgetown on Jan. 5, and the Hurricanes, who toppled eighth-ranked Connecticut the next day, were hoping to emerge from this game with a win and a higher national profile. What did they get? Upstart Miami got what coach Leonard Hamilton described as "a good, old-fashioned rear-end kicking" and at least another week to add to their 38 years of living among the unranked. (The Hurricanes discontinued their basketball program from 1971 to '85.) West Virginia, 14-2 and ranked No. 21 after its 98-84 victory over the team with the best field goal percentage defense in the country, got noticed.
In the 20 years that Gale Catlett has coached the Mountaineers, he has never had a recruit make it in the NBA and never had a team go beyond the second round of the NCAAs. With the loss of top scorer Seldon Jefferson and leading rebounder Gordon Malone from last year's 21-10 team, no one expected West Virginia to be in the Top 25 this season. But among the factors working in the Mountaineers' favor are a starting lineup of five seniors, good chemistry, an effective 40-minute press and that reliably potent motivator: a snub by the NCAA tournament selection committee. "I ran out of the room crying when we didn't get a bid last year," says senior point guard Jarrod West. "I don't want to go through that again."
Neither does Damian Owens, a 6'6" forward from just outside Washington, D.C., who went to West Virginia "to get out of the city," he says, and has made the most of his four years in the country. Though he has yet to be named first-team All-Big East, the versatile Owens is arguably the most valuable player in the league; he's on pace to end his career as the first Mountaineer to rank among the school's alltime top 10 in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots. "That would be truly amazing," says Catlett. "Nobody else has done that, not even Jerry West."
But as valuable as Owens is, he hardly qualifies as a superstar. "This isn't the most talented team we've had," says senior forward Brent Solheim. "But it's the closest. How you get along is a big part of your success."
Solheim knows all about getting along; since November he and roommate Jarrod West have been playing host to Solheim's retired parents, Roger and Lola, who closed up their house in Rochester, Minn., and moved into Brent and Jarrod's apartment so they could spend the winter following their son's final season. "We're having a ball," says Lola, who turns out lasagna feasts for the Mountaineers while Roger, a chess buff, teaches them the basics of the game.
But at the risk of spoiling this festival of good feeling, it should be noted that the Big East is still a dubious contender for March glory. The conference may be ranked second in the latest power ratings and may have a respectable 6-6 record against Top 25 teams, but it's 2-5 against the Big Ten and 1-7 against the ACC which doesn't bode well for success in the NCAAs.
The truth is, the college game may have changed in ways that the Big East has not adjusted to. Top-notch backcourts now seem essential to winning titles, and the conference remains one of mostly anonymous guards. In the 12 seasons since the shot clock was introduced, the Big East has added four schools to its ranks but has sent only four teams to the Final Four (Providence in 1987, Seton Hall in '89 and Syracuse in '87 and '96) and hasn't produced a single champion. Don't look for that to change this year.