WVU basketball: Camaraderie forming off the court
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Publicly, West Virginia's basketball season begins tonight with the Gold-Blue Debut at the Coliseum. Privately, though, it began on a bowling alley over the summer with Juwan Staten leading the way like he hopes he will this season.
"I won," the junior point guard said. "They're probably going to make jokes about that because I bowl with two hands and underhanded, but it got the job done. So I'm not really worried about what they have to say about it. At the end of the day, I won."
Staten is right. He did win. His teammates are still laughing.
"He gets it with two hands, squats, looks up and rolls, but it's a strike every time," sophomore guard Terry Henderson said. "Once he started doing it, it was over.
"I was laughing. Everyone was laughing, like, 'Why are you bowling like that?' Then he started getting strike after strike after strike and then we were all like, 'OK, now I see why.' "
Unlikely to shoot free throws underhanded when tonight's festivities begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Coliseum, Staten and the Mountaineers believe the slam dunk contest and the 40-minute scrimmage will show observers this team is different from last year's team.
"Bowling was just something to get us out of the house and away from basketball so we could hang out and have some fun together, but I feel like this team has a better feel for one another and trusts each other more than before," he said.
The Mountaineers have many new faces and an obvious storyline is how freshmen Nathan Adrian, Devin Williams and Brandon Watkins and junior college transfers Remi Dibo and Jonathan Holton perform - or in the case of Holton, if he performs.
Yet WVU has just as many veterans who were on hand for last season's 13-19 record and everything that went wrong on and off the floor.
"I can't actually explain to you what happened last year, but it was just not there," junior guard Gary Browne said. "We loved each other on the court, but I'd probably say everyone wanted to put their egos into it.
"Right now, we actually enjoy practicing and competing against one another, and after that, we're all tired, but we try to hang out together. I feel like it's helping and why we're getting along real well on the court."
Those same veterans - Browne, Henderson, Staten, junior Kevin Noreen and sophomore Eron Harris - made sure old and new spent a lot of time together over the summer and then once the fall semester started late in August.
"Not a coincidence," Noreen said.
They know more than names and hometowns. They know more than who can't go left and who won't pass. They know Dibo is a kick boxer, Williams is a really good cook and Watkins wants to be a music producer. Holton has a seemingly endless supply of energy while Adrian is calm and composed, or "the man," as Henderson described.
"The group of guys we have were closer this summer than in years passed, especially last year," Noreen said. "It helps to get a bond like that going into a year and to have chemistry already developed before you go into practice. You learn to rely on these guys before they're tested in pressure situations."
A freshman picking up a 7-10 split doesn't mean he'll box out when the other team is shooting free throws. A series of gutter balls doesn't mean a junior college transfer will miss a string of 3-pointers.
It's been about more than bowling or socializing and the lessons learned have been beneficial to the rookies and the veterans.
"I'll use Devin as an example," Noreen said of the 6-foot-9, 255-pound forward. "I know I'm beginning to be able to rely on him more because he had been coming in underweight, which is something we aren't allowed to do here. I told him taking care of his body and eating right means you have to make sacrifices to get those meals in.
"He's able to do that now, so I see that and I think, 'OK, here's a guy I can rely on down the road.'"
All it took was a conversation in the weight room, a place Noreen wanted to spend a lot of time in the summer so he could get to know Williams and Watkins.
"Little secrets like eating at 3 a.m. to help get your weight up, that's something you don't think about, but if you're willing to do it and you need to do it, it's a good little tip to help you get a couple extra pounds," Noreen said.
There are other suggestions that are intended to help ordinary things new players need to know, but oftentimes do not. Henderson said he's helping his new teammates learn about bus routes, the PRT schedule and good places to eat.
"I had to learn that by myself last year," he said. "Nobody told me about that, but I wanted them to know it. Last year, Eron and I did everything together. We found out about all the bus routes. We found out when the PRT runs. We found out about where to go eat.
"Even on the court, we found out how to adjust and how to come out and play against college guys and how to be successful against college guys."
He's passed along what he's learned and he likes what he sees.
"I just feel like we're more of a team this year," Henderson said, "than we were before."