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Poor practices cause of concern for Mountaineers

TAMPA, Fla. -- A year ago, West Virginia won its final two regular-season basketball games, including a thriller at Villanova that saw the Mountaineers shake an awful start, stage a comeback and win in overtime to address a whole bunch of concerns at once.

Then the Mountaineers had some shaky practices and one in particular that spooked them before the Big East Conference tournament. True, they won the championship, but as the players look back on it now, especially with what preceded this year's performance at Madison Square Garden, they do have to wonder.

"We hit a buzzer-beater off the backboard against Cincinnati, Notre Dame missed a shot to beat us and we hit another buzzer-beater against Georgetown," senior point guard Joe Mazzulla said. "Did we really have momentum or did we use that Big East experience to make the NCAA run?"

Whatever the answer, those Mountaineers won four tournament games to make the Final Four for the first time since 1959. These Mountaineers begin the march back in Thursday's game against UAB or Clemson, which met Tuesday night in the First Four at Dayton, Ohio.

Tipoff is at 12:15 p.m. on CBS from the St. Pete Times Forum.

Who knows how these Mountaineers will end, but they begin with similar uncertainty. A three-game winning streak to end the regular season came right before cause for concern.

"We had two of our worst practices of the year before the Big East tournament," junior forward Kevin Jones said. "We just weren't prepared to play at all."

WVU played arguably its best half of the season in its game against Marquette last Wednesday, but then played perhaps its worst half of the year after halftime and lost, 67-61.

"We didn't have any momentum going in," Mazzulla said. "It was only a matter of time before we were sent home."

It was the first time in four trips with Coach Bob Huggins that the Mountaineers hadn't won at least two games and reached the quarterfinals, but they kind of saw that coming. The Mountaineers weren't fit mentally or physically.

"A lot of that is we were sick," Huggins said, listing Mazzulla, guard Jonnie West and forwards Deniz Kilicli and Cam Thoroughman as those affected most. "When you've only got nine guys, man, if you've got some guys who are sick and pale and don't feel very good, it's hard to have good practices."

The Mountaineers (20-11), who are seeded No. 5 in the NCAA East Region, returned to campus last Thursday and had the day off before they were to return to practice the next day.  

"You don't really know what to expect," Mazzulla said. "We prepared ourselves for an hour-and-a-half film session, the usual when we're not playing well."

WVU was instead treated to some shooting and conditioning drills as part of a light and abbreviated workout. Afterward, some broke off to play some games to keep having fun. Others just went somewhere to relax.

Neither is a luxury teams get to enjoy to often this time of year.

"We were all shocked, but obviously happy," Mazzulla said.

The practice Sunday wasn't much different and the mood was again light, but this time with eager players anxious to get going again.

"Things were back to normal. I really think that's what the team needed," Jones said. "We needed to get our minds off the loss and take a break and remember a whole new season is coming up and anything can happen in March. We needed to focus on that, so it totally changed our mood and gave us a new energy."

The truth behind the Mountaineers' metamorphosis is a little less exciting, though. This wasn't some devious design by Huggins to reinvigorate his players. He didn't plan to do too much in the practices between the Big East tournament and the first practice after Selection Sunday, no matter when or how they'd left New York.

There was no value in practicing for the opponent because it was impossible to guess who it might be.

"You don't have any idea what style of play is coming," Huggins said. "You don't have any idea if they throw it to their bigs. Are they guard-oriented? Do they play fast? Do they play slow? You don't have any idea, so what are you going to do?"

The other option was to focus on WVU, but Huggins said there wasn't much use in that, either.

 "I love him and he's been great for us, but when you've got (6-foot-2, 160-pound) Craig Carey playing power forward in practice, that's not really a test for K.J.," Huggins said. "It's hard for us to get a lot out of what we're trying to do offensively.

"We don't have enough bigs to be able to simulate anything anybody is going to be able to do and I think that's been a problem toward the end of the year. You take out starters away and our other four guys are Deniz and three guards."

There was a twist Sunday night when found itself in the slot with one of the four play-in games. That meant two more days that wouldn't be devoted to an opponent. WVU gave some time to both teams in practices Monday and Tuesday, but also tried to do some things to help themselves.

It's not an ideal situation, but it's something the Mountaineers find they might prefer.

"Last year, we had like five or six days to prepare for Duke (in a Final Four semifinal) and I thought that was too many days," Mazzulla said. "We got away from what we wanted to do and really concentrated on them for so many days in a row.

"I think this is better for us so we can focus on them almost like we do for a regular season game. We're comfortable with that."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. 


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