MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The bar has just got a little higher for the West Virginia University men’s basketball program. The Mountaineers were picked to finish fifth in the Big East preseason poll announced at the conference’s media day this morning at Madison Square Garden in New York City. League coaches were surveyed.
Villanova was picked over Connecticut for the regular-season title, but polling was done before it was revealed that Wildcat forward Curtis Sumpter suffered a left knee injury during practice that could force him to miss a good portion of the season.
Villanova coach Jay Wright estimated on CSTV that there is a 40-percent chance his star forward might be back in uniform this season.
“We made the mistake last year when Kyle Lowry had this injury of making the statement that he was out for the season and that we were going to redshirt him,” Wright said. “Then he got back so quickly and he wanted to play. Curtis wants to play with these guys and we’re going to hold it out there and give him the choice.”
Sumpter was also picked on the 10-member preseason all-Big East team, which includes West Virginia’s Kevin Pittsnogle who came on strong at the end of the year averaging more 17 points per game down the stretch and leading the Mountaineers to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
Syracuse guard Gerry McNamara and Connecticut forward Rudy Gay headline the preseason team, being named co-players of the year.
Connecticut center Josh Boone, Villanova guards Randy Foye and Allan Ray, Pitt guard Carl Krauser, St. John’s guard Darryll Hill and Louisville guard Taquan Dean were also recognized.
Syracuse freshman guard Eric Devendorf was voted Big East rookie of the year.
“Eric’s a good player,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. “He can shoot the ball, he’s a tough kid, and he’s pretty mature for a freshman. He should be able to come into the Big East and make an impact.”
Louisville placed third behind Villanova and Connecticut, followed by Syracuse and West Virginia to round out the top five.
Following West Virginia is a log-jam of teams consisting of Georgetown, Pitt, Notre Dame and Cincinnati, minus its long-time coach Bobby Huggins. St. John’s, DePaul, Marquette, Providence, Rutgers, Seton Hall and South Florida make up the rest of the 16-team league.
Georgetown, with all of its starters returning, is expected to take a major step forward this year.
“We just want to improve,” said Hoya coach John Thompson, III. “We stumbled at the end but we regrouped and played well going into the Big East tournament and then also in the NIT.”
West Virginia’s fifth-place polling is the best it has fared at Big East media day, having been picked to finish ninth out of 12 teams last year and ninth out of 14 teams in 2004.
Spirits are high in Morgantown after West Virginia’s post-season run of 2005. After beating Providence in the first round of the Big East tournament, the Mountaineers upset top-seeded Boston College and nationally ranked Villanova to reach the finals.
West Virginia’s torrid play continued in the NCAA tournament, downing both Creighton and No. 2-seeded Wake Forest to reach the “Sweet 16” for the first time since 1998. The Mountaineers clipped Texas Tech in the regional semifinals and came within a basket of beating Louisville to make the Final Four for just the second time in school history.
Veteran coach John Beilein must now contend with a team that has gone from being the hunter to being the hunted.
“It is a concern,” Beilein said. “We have to understand how we got to where we were. The expectations … we’ve got to let them alone and just go back to who we were when we were in the middle of the Big East.
“That’s the beauty of the Big East – finish in the middle and you’re still a very, very good basketball team.”
Beilein has four starters and five seniors returning, led by forward Mike Gansey’s 12-points-per-game average. Pittsnogle averaged 11.9 points had made 42.6 percent of his three-point tries.
The Mountaineers (24-11 last season) also return their starting backcourt tandem of Joe Herber and J.D. Collins, both seniors. Herber averaged 8.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game and is one of the conference’s most versatile players, while Collins dealt 114 assists compared to just 50 turnovers.
Six-four senior Patrick Beilein came off the bench last season to become one of the conference’s top three-point shooters, making 70 threes. Sophomore Darris Nichols played effectively as a backup point guard and averaged three points per game.
Six-foot-five junior Frank Young filled in nicely for Tyrone Sally in last year’s Big East tournament, scoring a career-high 14 points in the quarterfinal win against Boston College. Young will get the first crack at Sally’s small forward spot in the lineup, although he has been slowed in the preseason with a foot injury.
Freshmen forwards Alex Ruoff and Joe Alexander could also get into the mix. Ruoff, a 6-foot-6-inch, 200-pounder from Brooksville, Fla., missed most of his senior season with an injury while Alexander, a 6-foot-8-inch, 210-pound rising freshman, spent last year playing at Hargrave Military Academy.
Seven-foot center Rob Summers, a Penn State transfer, figures to back up Pittsnogle at center. Summers has starting experience in the Big Ten Conference.
West Virginia’s regular season begins two weeks early playing Louisiana-Monroe in the first round of the Guardians Classic on Saturday, Nov. 12, at the WVU Coliseum. If West Virginia can get by Louisiana-Monroe and either Wofford or Fairleigh-Dickinson on Sunday, Nov. 13, it will advance to the Guardians Classic semifinals in Kansas City, on Monday, Nov. 21.
Tickets for the Guardians Classic are now on sale through the Mountaineer Ticket Office and can be ordered by calling toll-free 1-800-WVU GAME.