WVU: The A-10's loss is nation's gain
West Virginia's roster was supposed to be terrorizing the Atlantic 10. Now the 'Eers could be on their way to Indy.
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- From penicillin to Popsicles, accidental discovery historically has been the true mother of invention. Some of the great advances in the human condition have come completely by mistake.
The same also can be true with basketball programs.
Say hello to the West Virginia Mountaineers, America's accidental powerhouse. The first-place team in the nation's best conference is a motley amalgam of coaches and players who didn't arrive in these rustic hills as part of some inspired master strategy. In fact, it's taken some fortuitously fluky circumstances that led them into these hills at all.
The players who make up the guts of this team thought they would be toiling in the relative anonymity of the Atlantic 10, not riding a surreal streak of hot shooting and heady basketball to the cusp of the Final Four last March, then to the top of the Big East this February.
If the Dan Dakich domino had not fallen four years ago, when the Bowling Green coach was hired and then quit as the West Virginia coach in a span of eight days, John Beilein and three of his best players would be Richmond Spiders today. If a welding certificate had not destroyed the St. Bonaventure program three years ago, nobody would be talking about Mike Gansey as an All-America candidate. And if Beilein and his unique offense had never arrived, it's possible that Pittsnogle still would be a regionally recognized proper noun, not a nationally celebrated verb.
But all those things did happen. And the result has been a most excellent accident. It's been a "Eureka!" experience for a program that hasn't had days like these since Jerry West hung up his No. 44 jersey some 46 years ago.
The entire experience has been too grand for the Mountaineers to process.
"I think it'll take a couple years after we graduate and leave to figure out what it means," center Kevin Pittsnogle said.
But there is much more potentially to be accomplished before that time comes. Halfway through conference play, it's the Mountaineers -- not No. 1 Connecticut, not No. 4 Villanova -- who are the lone unbeaten in the Big East. At 17-4 and 8-0, No. 10 West Virginia is among the hottest teams in the country, one of the toughest stylistic matchups and one of the most legitimate Final Four contenders.
This sustained serendipity has been going on for almost exactly a year, by Beilein's reckoning. On Feb. 5, 2005 -- the coach's 52nd birthday, coincidentally -- then starting center D'Or Fisher came down with a cold, so Beilein inserted Pittsnogle in the starting lineup against Pittsburgh. He responded with 27 points in an upset victory.
The Mountaineers are 29-8 since then, including their upset-filled March runs to the final of the Big East tournament and the West Regional final in Albuquerque, where they fell an overtime short of the Final Four against Louisville.
|Dakich has no regrets|
Dan Dakich doesn't regret leaving West Virginia days after accepting the job four years ago.
In fact, he's one of the Mountaineers' biggest fans.
In one of the stranger recent coaching moves, Dakich accepted the job at West Virginia only to return to Bowling Green after the news conference announcing him as the Mountaineers' new head coach.
"I made a decision based on what was there," said Dakich, who added there was more to the potential fear of NCAA sanctions at the time with the end of the Gale Catlett era. "I said at the time that this [was] the best move for me and for West Virginia and everybody involved."
"Because all that had happened [at WVU] and based on my life and the way I live it," said Dakich, clearly focusing on the culture that existed under the previous staff. Ultimately, the Mountaineers never received any NCAA sanctions. "I just felt like it wasn't something that was going to be in the best interests for me and for West Virginia, and obviously it worked out well for West Virginia."
The Mountaineers reached the Elite Eight last season under John Beilein, who left his post at Richmond to take the WVU job once Dakich resigned and returned to Bowling Green. Dakich was coming off his best season at BGSU, with a 24-9 record and an NIT berth in 2001-02, when he landed the Mountaineers' job. Since then, he has gone 13-16, 14-17 and 18-11, never finishing higher than third in the MAC. The Falcons currently are in last place in the MAC East at 5-7 (9-13 overall).
"They've done a great job there," Dakich said of Beilein and his staff. "John Beilein should be commended for a wonderful job. They're fun to watch. I root for them. I like the way they play. They play hard, guys like Mike Gansey and Kevin Pittsnogle. "It worked out fine for me," Dakich said. "I'd rather be in the Elite Eight and things like that, but I don't have any regrets. I live my life based on being able to say, 'This is how you do things honestly, not based on money.' I do what I think is right and that's what I did. I don't have any regrets."
-- Andy Katz
"It's not some genius plan," Beilein said. "D'Or got sick, so we had to go with Kevin."
None of it is a genius plan, going back to the April day in 2002 when Beilein was introduced as the new coach in Morgantown.
Some charitably call Beilein the third choice of athletic director Ed Pastilong, after Bob Huggins turned down the chance to coach his alma mater and Dakich had his bizarre come-and-go. (Since returning to Bowling Green, Dakich has been a disappointing 54-58, with zero NCAA Tournament appearances. His jilting of WVU has been among the best things ever to happen to Mountaineers basketball.) But third choice might be gilding the lily: Pastilong reportedly interviewed seven job candidates after Dakich, and several others withdrew from consideration before Dakich got the job.
This was nothing new to Beilein, however. He'd spent more than two obscure decades experimenting with unconventional basketball, rolling up 22 winning seasons in 24 years as a head coach at backwater locales like Erie Community College, NAIA Nazareth, Division II LeMoyne, Canisius and Richmond. He was his own guy: never serving as anyone's assistant coach, developing his own ideas about how the game should be played -- yet doing it without developing a Naismith Complex, like he invented the game.
"I don't want to come across as somebody who knows something about the game," he said.
Still, Beilein wound up with something of a cult following among those who watched his old teams dissect defenses with their back cuts, crisp passes and perimeter shooting. A small cult. Hardly anybody saw the guy's teams play.
Beilein enjoys teaching the game so much that he probably could have been happy continuing to do it at out-of-the-way schools. But eventually his success got him somewhere.
He took Canisius to the NCAA Tournament in 1996, whereupon the 13th-seeded Golden Griffins were quickly cashed out in the first round by Utah. Beilein's breakthrough moment, though, came two years later, his first season at Richmond, when his 14th-seeded Spiders shocked No. 3 seed South Carolina. That gave the world its first good look at Beilein's beautiful interpretation of the Princeton offense.
The Spiders never made it back to the NCAAs in four subsequent seasons under Beilein, but even that played a part in bringing him to West Virginia. His 2001 Richmond team -- which the coach firmly believed belonged in the Big Dance -- played the Mountaineers in the first round of the NIT and dismantled WVU, 79-56. Without that chance to make an impression, Beilein probably never would have gotten this job.
"He's been his own person the whole time," said Beilein's son, Patrick, the Mountaineers' sixth man. "He finally got a break when West Virginia called."
A literal roll-up-your-sleeves guy on the sidelines, the unpretentious Beilein has been a comfortable fit in Morgantown, where the belt buckles are big and the boots and Carhartt jackets are not affectations. This is an unvarnished place that appreciates its unvarnished team -- despite the strange way it came together.
When Beilein got that call from West Virginia, it echoed as far away as Germany. That's where Johannes Herber played basketball.
Not that America much noticed. A videotape campaign had gotten him a visit to Cal Poly and a few other scholarship offers. His only other recruiting visit was scheduled for Richmond in April 2002.
The day before Herber was to make that trip, Beilein canceled it.
"I'm going to call you in two weeks," the coach promised.
When Beilein called Herber again, he was the head coach at West Virginia.
"I didn't know anything [about West Virginia]," Herber said. "I didn't even know the conference. I had to look it up on the Internet."
Today, Herber has started all 116 games he's played at the college he didn't know existed four years ago. He's the perfect fit for the Beilein system: smart, skilled and versatile. He leads the Mountaineers in assists at 5.1 per game.
Herber was supposed to be joined by Patrick Beilein and J.D. Collins as freshmen at Richmond. Instead they followed the coach to a much tougher league and have lived up to the challenge. Beilein is the school's career leader in 3-pointers (by two, at the moment, over Pittsnogle), while Collins has climbed to seventh on the school's career assist chart and has a career assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.4 to 1.
Both perfectly fit Beilein's description of what it takes to play in his system.
"You've definitely got to be a good shooter, a good passer and a good teammate," John Beilein said. "The chemistry is so important to the success of this style. None of that [talent] means anything if the guy is not a good teammate."
How good are Pat Beilein and Collins at sacrificing for the common good? Collins is a four-year starter whose career average is just barely more than three shots per game. Beilein has been content to come off the bench in 115 of his 116 career games.
"A lot of college teams have me-first attitudes," Patrick Beilein said. "That's not us."
The fourth A-10 refugee comes with the same unselfish mentality -- and the most talent. That's Gansey, who somehow is averaging 18.5 points while taking fewer than 12 shots per game.
No player in America of Gansey's height (6-foot-4) comes close to him in field-goal percentage. He's the only sub-6-5 guy in the national top 50 in shooting accuracy, checking in at 16th at 59.7 percent -- a number normally associated with drop-step-and-dunk centers. Gansey also is hitting 47.7 percent from 3-point range.
That means, in a nutshell, he's mastered the art of knowing where and when to shoot in Beilein's motion offense, and how to get open for those shots.
And of course, his presence at West Virginia is wholly accidental. He was a standout freshman and sophomore at St. Bonaventure, but when that program went up in a mushroom cloud of academic malfeasance in 2003 (a junior-college transfer was admitted to school with only a welding certificate as his academic passport), Gansey was one of many who jumped ship.
Having played against him for a year in the A-10, Beilein recruited Gansey hard when he transferred.
The transfer didn't sit well with St. Bonaventure fans, who knew what kind of player they were losing. Some of them showed up to heckle Gansey when West Virginia played the Bonnies in Charleston, W.Va., last year.
"They were yelling, 'We hate you, Gansey! Quitter! Traitor!' It was bad," he recalled, then shrugged. "I tried to make a decision for myself [to transfer]. Sorry."
The decision has been a momentous one for Mountaineers basketball. Beilein had the program on the upswing his first two years, taking over an 8-20 team and immediately going 14-15, then 17-14. But when Gansey became eligible after sitting out a year, West Virginia took off last season.
Not that you'd look at the guy and expect much. He's a bundle of small quirks, from the multiple baggy T-shirts he wears simultaneously under his jersey -- two gray shirts during WVU's game last Saturday against Cincinnati -- to sleeping with a Scooby-Doo stuffed animal. Roommate Beilein also reports that Gansey eats tuna fish, right out of the can, before every game.
And then there are his legs. They're shaved smoother than a runway model's for every game. So are Beilein's.
"I at least got him using a razor," Beilein said. "He was using barber clippers before."
Who better to cap off this eccentric collection than tattooed, goateed Pittsnogle? He's a catch-and-shoot center from the catch-and-release hinterlands of Martinsburg, W.Va., and by now his story is well-known.
The product of a trailer park and a gravel basketball hoop became a state celebrity in high school and was a coveted final recruit by coach Gale Catlett. Beilein, who saw Pittsnogle in high school and knew he'd be perfect for his perimeter-based system, re-recruited the big man when he took over.
Since then Beilein has watched his center accumulate points, popularity, tattoos and, just before the season in 2004, a wife. The wedding was held in the auditorium at Martinsburg High, with Pittsnogle's uncle performing the ceremony. The reception was at a retirement home, with corn dogs, Domino's pizza, Big K soda and macaroni on the menu, with karaoke as entertainment.
"That's his style," Patrick Beilein explained.
His on-court style is equally unique. The sheer amusement of watching a giant biker-looking hoopster draining 3s led West Virginia fans to loudly inform opponents, "You've been Pittsnogled!" And the stands at West Virginia Coliseum are dotted with fans young and old wearing No. 34 jerseys.
The youngest at one recent game might have been 3-year-old Jared Stern. Asked his favorite player, Jared exclaimed, "Pittsnogle!"
The man-verb has been Pittsnogling defenses even more frequently this year, upping his scoring from 11.9 points per game to 19.5, while adding significant off-court duties as a new father. Kwynsie James Pittsnogle entered the world this past Friday, and dad scored a dozen on Cincinnati 20 hours later.
These are the disparate ingredients that have come together in mad scientist Beilein's beaker. Barraging opponents with 3-pointers, bedeviling them with backdoor passes and flummoxing them with an active 1-3-1 zone defense, they make the coach's unconventional style work.
"Not a smarter style," coach Beilein insisted. "A unique style."
WVU defies commonly held statistical measures of success. For instance, rebounding margin is a stat held dear by many coaches, yet the Mountaineers are routinely bludgeoned on the glass, being outrebounded by 9.4 per game. (Even that is too much for Beilein's comfort. He'd breathe easier with a minus-six margin.)
They make up for it by having outscored opponents by 249 points from the arc and 55 points at the foul line. (Beilein's teams do a great job of not fouling.) They have 202 more assists than turnovers, while opponents are 110 in arrears. Remember the program credo: good shooters and good passers.
Recite some of the numbers for Beilein and he humbly rebuts, "We're probably the team that's been dunked on the most, as well." But the coach plays to his strengths and reinforces the fundamentals.
Players shoot in practice with a special ball The Rock has produced, called the Beilein Ball. It has a black stripe that runs perpendicular to the seams, so players can make sure they have the proper rotation on their shots.
Players also spend 10 minutes before practice lofting jumpers at the backboard, to the right and left of the rim. The purpose: to check mechanics without worrying about makes or misses, and to make sure they release the ball using the seams.
When the Mountaineers had their public practice in Albuquerque before the Sweet 16 last year, Gansey said he could sense befuddlement from the fans when the players began shooting shots and missing the rim by a foot to the right or left.
"I think they were like, 'This team just beat Wake Forest and they're shooting off the backboard? What's going on?'" Gansey said.
What's gone on in Morgantown the past four years has been an excellent basketball accident. And at the rate they're going this season, the West Virginia Mountaineers might accidentally find their way to Indianapolis.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.