WVU reminisces with Beilein
INDIANAPOLIS - West Virginia's players had some time to themselves Thursday night and a few decided to leave the hotel and the mock music videos behind to go shopping.
As Cam Payne, Jonnie West, Cam Thoroughman, Wellington Smith and Joe Mazzulla waked to Circle Center Mall, they carefully navigated the sidewalks crowded by Final Four fans and the outdoor seating provided at many restaurants.
Spotted eating dinner outside one place was the familiar face of their former coach, John Beilein.
For a moment, there was a thought about what the players should do. West, Thoroughman, Smith and Mazzulla were recruited by Beilein and took part in the 2007 NIT championship team. They were also hurt and confused when Beilein left after that season for Michigan and never gave them a satisfactory explanation.
They could have ignored the man and left him to his dinner with his family.
"We wanted to sneak up on him and surprise him," Thoroughman said.
They tried to blend into the mass as they neared the table, but before they could get there, Beilein stood up, spotted them and offered each a hug.
"It was interesting," Smith said. "It was kind of strange, kind of like seeing a family member you haven't seen in a while, but it was good. I feel like he really misses us."
From time to time in the past Smith would text back and forth with Beilein. The Wolverines coach, who's been an obvious and elusive subject this week, sent congratulatory messages following the Big East Tournament and the Elite Eight.
Thoroughman, Mazzulla and West hadn't seen, spoken to or texted with Beilein since their final meeting together in the team's film room April 4, 2007.
"It was kind of like meeting up with your ex-wife you didn't really get to finish things off with," Mazzulla said.
They spoke for 10 pleasant and peaceful minutes.
"He was very complimentary of us," Mazzulla said. "But it was just good to talk to him on a non-business level and just a personal level."
They relived the 2007 season and some of the more memorable games and stories. Beilein asked about the players and their families. He mentioned watching WVU march through the postseason. He even admitted naming a drill at Michigan after Thoroughman.
"He even brought up the 1-3-1 (zone) and asked us if we were playing it the same way," Thoroughman said.
The move to Michigan was never mentioned or questioned. The conversation was instead filled with laughing and reminiscing.
"It was good to see him again without thinking of the way everything ended with him abruptly leaving when we had no idea about it," West said. "It was nice to seem him and talk to him without the other emotional part of it."
The players said while it was a little awkward at first, the conversation quickly went to the good times they all spent together and avoided any animosity they may have one day had.
"You move along," Smith said. "That was a long, long time ago. It felt good to know he still remembers everything we went through together."
The Mountaineers remember Beilein. It's hard not to. They rely greatly on the five who played for him - no one more than Da'Sean Butler - as well as John Flowers, who Beilein recruited during his final season. They've leaned on a variation of Beilein's signature 1-3-1 on the road to their first Final Four since 1959.
Candidly, the Mountaineers admit Beilein, who went to the Elite Eight in 2005 and was 104-60 in five seasons, has a part in this.
"He's always going to be a part of the West Virginia basketball history," Thoroughman said. "Maybe he started some of this. He had some great seasons here.
"I don't think he's a bad guy. I respect him a lot. He's a great coach and a great guy and he's why I came here. Seeing him last night was like seeing an old friend. All that other stuff is in the past. It's done now."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.