Commentary

Mike Carey carries WVU to 16-1 start

Coach prefers aggressive, physical style of play that helped Mountaineers to 16-0 start

Originally Published: January 14, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

You no longer need to live in West Virginia to recognize Mike Carey's name as a fixture in women's basketball. After all, he's a two-time Big East Coach of the Year, sharing the honor last season with Connecticut's Geno Auriemma in just about the only contest the Huskies coach didn't win outright. And Carey is the person who took Morgantown's previously moribund program to four NCAA tournaments and six postseason appearances in his first nine seasons.

[+] EnlargeMike Carey
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsCoach Mike Carey demands perfection, but his West Virginia players say he's "like a father to all of us" off the court.

But for those still a little hazy on the details, you'd recognize him if you heard him.

Watch Carey stomp, fume and, yes, berate on the sideline, mustache in a permanent state of bristle, and it seems this is the guy Jim Croce would have written a song about had the former not been just about to start high school in Clarksburg, W.Va., when the singer-songwriter instead gave Leroy Brown the honor of being the "badder than old King Kong" and "meaner than a junkyard dog."

The school's bearded mascot wears buckskin and carries hunting equipment, but if the subject turns to the sideline's best bet to take down a wild animal, the smart money is on Carey and his bare hands. So while West Virginia (16-1, 3-1) might have been among the last to fall from the ranks of the unbeaten this season, losing 69-54 at Marquette on Tuesday, it's no surprise that the coach had little trouble finding blemishes well before that result.

"On the court, he demands perfection," freshman point guard Brooke Hampton said.

Hampton wanted that perfectionism in a coach when the New Jersey prep star signed with West Virginia. Nevertheless, even knowing what she was in for might not have fully prepared her for the unflinching and unedited reviews offered to any starting point guard in an offense that values shot selection as much as West Virginia. She was set to quietly learn the ropes behind incumbent senior Sarah Miles, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and one of the nation's leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio last season. But with Miles slowed by a variety of injuries in the season's opening weeks, first wrist and then knee, Hampton started nine of the team's first 14 games.

Youth and adversity didn't earn her any free passes from her coach.

"You know, my style, man, I don't care if you're a freshman or a senior," Carey said. "I just think that we've got to get her prepared, probably ahead of schedule. And because of that we've really put a lot of heat on her, in practices and in games, and she's responded very well."

And while his route to running a top-10 program in women's basketball was circuitous -- passing first through the high school ranks and then more than a decade in charge of the men's program at Division II Salem International University (formerly Salem College) -- it was also along the road he set out on. Carey graduated from Salem in 1980 and moved immediately into coaching at the high school level in West Virginia. A standout scorer in his own playing days, he nonetheless based his coaching on the basic principles for which his current teams are most readily identifiable.

[+] EnlargeLiz Repella
AP Photo/Bill KostrounSenior guard Liz Repella leads the Mountaineers with 14.1 ppg and 30 made 3-pointers.

In other words, if you think it's tough playing for him, try playing against him.

"I've always been, even as a player, very aggressive -- very physical, aggressive," Carey said. "My philosophy in basketball is if you play great defense, you rebound well and shot selection -- you take good shots -- you have an opportunity to win a lot of games."

Entering the Marquette game, West Virginia ranked first nationally in scoring defense and fifth in field goal defense. By Carey's own admission, the Mountaineers haven't played the same kind of schedule as teams like Connecticut, but opponents shooting worse than 40 percent and scoring fewer than 60 points per game have been as constant as the cold during winters under the coach's watch.

So it's hard to believe this might actually be the product of the modified Carey experience, a style altered ever so slightly when he left the Salem men's team to enter the unfamiliar world of women's college basketball in 2001.

"I'm still a very aggressive coach," Carey said. "I'm very demanding. I want things done a certain way. So that hasn't changed, Now, as far as being too aggressive, I'm probably not as aggressive with the women as I was with the men. But still, I only know how to coach one way, so I have to continue to coach that way, or I would not be effective.

"If I come down to practice and I'm just laid-back and I'm really not involved as much as I always am, our players think something's wrong with me. I need to bring it every day. We expect the players to bring it every day, and I expect the coaches to bring it also."

Few West Virginia teams have been equipped to bring it like this one. In Liz Repella, Madina Ali, Asya Bussie and Korinne Campbell, the Mountaineers have a wealth of multidimensional options who can, as their coach demands, score, rebound and defend. And with Miles returning, they have a proven lead guard and a suddenly battle-tested rookie behind her. The offense can be unsightly at times (see a 39-36 win at Villanova, or even Tuesday's box score), but that's what you get in a town wedged between the Steelers and the Ravens.

And as much as West Virginia can look like a team that will burn out by the start of the second half of a game -- let alone a season -- under Carey's intense guidance, there is equal emphasis on both parts of tough love.

"You can ask our players; I'm totally a different person off the floor than I am on the floor," Carey said. "I think that's important that you are. They've got to know that you have their back and that you are their friend and you do support them. But on the floor it's business. I tell our recruits and I tell our players, 'You step between the lines, now it's business. I'm going to be very aggressive, I'm going to be very demanding, and I'm going to have you do things you didn't think you could do.' And I expect things to be done.

"Now off the floor, we can joke around, we can kid around, we can do whatever you want to do, but on the floor it's all business."

It's not for everyone, perhaps, but closing out his first decade at West Virginia, Carey has developed a pretty good sense of what kind of players fit his system. It's why Hampton -- now back in a reserve role with Miles healthy -- began the week ranked fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio, trailing only some experienced hands in North Carolina's Cetera DeGraffenreid, Baylor's Melissa Jones and Texas A&M's Sydney Colson.

"I can't really explain it," Hampton said. "On the court he's a whole different person than he is off the court. Off the court, he's like a father to all of us."

Perhaps what we see isn't entirely what they get with Carey. But he sure sounds a little like the baddest man in the whole damn town in downplaying his team's strong start this season. Even winning 16 consecutive games can be a long way from perfection.

"We'll see," Carey said. "When we hit the Big East, we'll see where we're really at."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.