Reaching New Heights

  • February 17, 2010 03:33 PM
  • |
Posted by John Antonik on Wednesday, February 17, 2010
(3:34 p.m.)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Vivian Stringer’s high praise for the job Mike Carey has done with this year’s West Virginia basketball team may have been solicited, but that certainly doesn’t lessen the impact of her words.

  Mike Carey has West Virginia in the Top 10 for the first time in school history.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo

“He’s done nothing short of incredible,” Stringer said Tuesday night after watching her Rutgers team struggle to get good shots against Carey’s variety of defenses. “Mike can’t get enough credit for how well his team is performing.”

West Virginia was supposed to finish somewhere near the middle of the pack in the Big East Conference this year. But as of this morning, the Mountaineers (23-3) are presently tied with No. 3 Notre Dame for second place in the league standings with a 10-2 record.

West Virginia’s three losses have come on the road against Top 10 teams Ohio State, Notre Dame and Connecticut. Two weeks ago, the Mountaineers reached the Top 10 for the first time in the 36 years they have been playing women’s basketball at West Virginia.

Next week, West Virginia has the opportunity to complete its first undefeated regular season at the Coliseum, the Mountaineers having now won 18 in a row at home after Tuesday night’s 55-51 win over Rutgers. If not for Connecticut chasing history, what Mike Carey has done at WVU this year would garner much more national attention.

Consider this: In the nine seasons Carey has been at West Virginia he has won more than 62 percent of his games. In the nine seasons prior to Carey’s arrival in 2002, three different coaches combined to win only 39 percent of their games.

Back then, there were many times when West Virginia teams walked into opposing team’s gyms knowing they were going to lose by 30 points. One coach stuck around for just two years, never even bothering to change her out-of-state license plates before taking the first job offer that came her way.

What many regard as the biggest moment in program history – Georgeann Wells’ dunk against the University of Charleston in Elkins, W.Va., in 1984 – was somewhat contrived (the 6-foot-7 Wells was cherry picking at the other end of the floor when her teammate rebounded a missed shot and threw her the ball).

All-American guard Rosemary Kosiorek was a fabulous player for her era, but her hardwood exploits have long since been forgotten.

The school made two trips to the national tournament before Carey’s arrival (Carey has made three with No. 4 on the way next month). Depending on how the team finishes the regular season and performs in the Big East tournament, the Mountaineers are still in contention for one of four top seeds in the NCAA tournament.

At first glance the out-of-conference schedule doesn’t look that great, but Marist and Fresno State both have reached 20 wins and are leading their respective leagues, and Duquesne has 18 victories and remains in the hunt in the Atlantic 10. The Mountaineers have played 16 games against teams with winning records. No. 17 will come this Saturday at South Florida.

Carey’s roster is a melting pot of players – four-year and JC transfers, overlooked high school players and even one foreigner. He will admit that there have been times when he has looked down at the other team’s bench and wondered how many of their players he tried to recruit.

Yes, it’s nice to have high school All-Americans, but it’s even better to have players that fit what you are doing. Carey certainly has that with this year’s team.

“It’s not like he has a bunch of All-Americans,” said Stringer. “It’s not like that. More importantly, you can have that and it doesn’t mean anything. I think you can have a lot of good players, but if they’re hard-headed and not doing what they need to do then what the heck, what’s the point?”

Stringer is familiar with Korinne Campbell, having coached her older sister Michelle at Rutgers. Korinne started her college career at Minnesota before transferring to West Virginia, where she is now giving the Mountaineers 11 points and eight rebounds per game.

“He’s taken Korinne Campbell and she’s playing great for him,” said Stringer. “He’s able to say what he needs to say to her and she seems to hear it and she’s responding in a positive way.

“(Liz) Repella has always been the base of this team,” Stringer added. “Then you add Madina Ali and (Vanessa) House."

Carey has said repeatedly since the beginning of the season that he thought this team could be special, not only because of the talent they had, but more importantly because of their willingness to be coached and to get along with each other. That is perhaps their single greatest characteristic.

“I think the players like each other and I think that’s where it starts,” said Carey. “And I think they have bought into defense. They understand that if we play defense and rebound we can be in most of the games. Last but not least, they’ve bought into our coaching style. They don’t pout or get upset when we get on them. They just try and go harder and that’s because they are good girls and they want to be good.”

Stringer can see that from the other side of the court.

“Obviously he has the right disposition,” she said. “They believe in each other and they’re doing things. I’ve watched them now for a number of games and they execute with a purpose. That speaks volumes.”

One other important aspect of Carey’s program is the way he develops his players. He will be the first to admit that his coaching style is not for everyone, but those that can handle it and listen to what he’s saying – not how he says it – will get better.

His batting average is a perfect 1.000 in the player development category.

“A lot of our girls like Sarah (Miles) and Liz, they continue to improve every year,” Carey said. “That’s the thing we’ve been able to do here at West Virginia is really get players to improve from one year to another. There is no doubt in my mind that you will see (freshman) Asya Bussie improve next year and you will see Korinne Campbell improve. You will see them all improve. That’s something we take a lot of pride in here.”

West Virginians can also take great pride in having a first-class women’s basketball program now ranked among the best teams in the country. Carey and his coaching staff have worked hard to get them there.

Even more encouraging is the fact that the best is still likely yet to come. There is not a single senior on this year’s team.

A wise, old coach once told me the secret to great coaching is really simple: Use a defense that’s hard to attack and have your best players take all of the shots.

And that is exactly what Mike Carey’s team seems to be doing this year.

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