|Country roads take me home. West Virginia players celebrate their 25-point victory over 11th-ranked Iowa State Monday night at the WVU Coliseum.
|Dale Sparks/All-Pro Photography photo
Isn’t it fun watching college basketball around here again?
It has been a rough 20 months or so for the West Virginia die-hards since the Mountaineers lost by 23 to Gonzaga in an NCAA tournament first round game in Pittsburgh in 2012.
During that time we also lost Twinkies, Ho Hos and my personal favorite, Ding Dongs, for an eight-month period until Hostess finally got its act together.
Well, it looks like West Virginia is beginning to get its act together, too.
After watching team after team come into the Coliseum and take our lunch money for the past 18 months or so, it’s nice seeing a good, old-fashioned Coliseum beat-down like the one we witnessed Monday night against 11th-ranked Iowa State. While there was still a little too much blue in the arena for my liking, the WVU students were once again their phenomenal selves.
Gale Catlett used to call it the “Coliseum Magic” – a mixture of terrific play from the Mountaineers, boisterous and vocal fans supporting the good guys with a twinge of weirdness that usually made opposing teams uncomfortable, beginning with the bus ride from the airport to town when the players got their first look at what Notre Dame’s Austin Carr used to call “that giant clamshell stuck right in the middle of the mountains” - that being the Coliseum, of course.
Case in point: Melvin Ejim scores 48 one night against TCU and then two nights later he gets 6 in Morgantown. That's Coliseum Magic at work.
It was obvious on Monday night that the Cyclones were uncomfortable from the moment they got off the bus. The sharp-shooting Iowans couldn’t throw it in the ocean, and West Virginia, for really the first time since the Final Four season in 2010, kept its foot on the gas pedal for an entire game.
Yes, the Coliseum is getting its Mo Jo back. Bob Huggins, too, for that matter.
I remember watching Huggs lumber into the pressroom following last year’s loss to Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament looking like someone who had just seen his favorite hunting dog get run over by a pickup truck.
He talked in almost a whisper about how disappointing the season was, how dysfunctional his team was, and how he was going to get things fixed. At the time, we all wondered what that entailed.
Even earlier this year, while watching his young team fumble away winnable games against Virginia Tech, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Purdue and Oklahoma State, you wondered how much progress the Mountaineers were actually making.
Well, it’s becoming clear now. This team is getting better by leaps and bounds, starting with the most underrated point guard in the country, Juwan Staten
The junior is going to be the first player in more than 100 years of basketball at West Virginia University to score 500 points, grab more than 150 rebounds and hand out more than 150 assists in a season – not even the Logo himself can claim that feat – and Staten’s doing it in, perhaps, the best basketball league in the country.
We’ve now seen a year and a half of Big 12 basketball and it is obvious that this conference is stacked with superior athletes from top to bottom - yes, even at the bottom. Think back to our days in the Big East and try and recall a time Jim Calhoun ever lost to one of the bottom teams in the league.
Admittedly, my memory isn’t what it used to be, but I can’t remember that ever occurring.
Well, it happened in the Big 12 last year when Bill Self lost at TCU.
The style of play in the Big 12 is also very entertaining, much the way we used to watch Connecticut, Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame get up and down the floor with the first team to 80 usually winning.
There is none of this grabbing, holding and hugging that we were so used to seeing from some of the other teams in the old Big East that just sucked all of the air out of the arena. Next to missing my Ding Dongs and watching the Mountaineers lose to teams that they used to beat on a regular basis, there is nothing worse than paying real money to see Jamie Dixon’s Pitt Panthers run offense. Yes, it works for them, but so does making hot dogs for Oscar Meyer, and nobody wants to watch that, either.
But I digress.
West Virginia is right back in the thick of things at 15-10 overall, 7-5 in the Big 12. The Mountaineers have regular-season games on the horizon against Texas, Baylor, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Kansas – all résumé builders – and WVU can keep its name in the postseason discussion if it can figure out a way to hold its own down the stretch.
Yes, we know this team has its deficiencies. It still struggles to defend the way Huggins wants his teams to defend, it doesn’t always make its jump shots and it doesn’t have a consistent scorer around the basket, but they ALWAYS play hard, they play together, they play for each other and that in itself is a major improvement from last year.
Furthermore, the band will remain intact for another year or two (with a few more pieces being added to the ensemble), meaning the good times should continue.
Yes, it’s fun watching college basketball around here again. I think I will sit back and help myself to another Ding Dong, with a glass of milk as a chaser.