West Virginia's impressive showing at the Old Spice Classic, followed by a non-conference win over the ACC's NC State Wolfpack has some fans thinking about a third straight trip to the NCAA tournament. In all reality, such expecations are premature. After all, we're not even halfway through December yet.
"We’re pleased to be 7-1 with such a young team, but we know that there’s a long way to go," said Beilein, who is in his fifth year at the helm of the Mountaineer program. "We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of games at neutral sites and at (the Coliseum)where we’ve played well. We’ve got some wins, but the month of December will be important for us. Win or lose, we know we’re getting better."
The key to West Virginia's hot start has been a staunch defense that creates a lot of turnovers, and gives up very few points. In this week's NCAA rankings, the Mountaineers rank sixth in steals per game at 11.7. That's good enough for second in the Big East behind league leader Seton Hall. Beilein's bunch ranks first in the conference and fourth in the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 52.1 points per game.
In particular, the Mountaineers have been exceptionally stingy when it comes to giving up the three. Through the first eight games, opponents have shot 34-132 against the Mountaineers from downtown. That's roughly 25.8 percent from three-point range. Only Arkansas and Duquesne have made more than five three's in a game against West Virginia, and no team has made more than seven. Despite those gaudy statistics, Beilein is remaining guarded (no pun intended).
"Its fool’s gold to think right now that at the Big East level we can have the same numbers defending the three and stealing," he said. "We’re a little longer than we’ve been, and they say that we’re a little bit quicker than we’ve been too."
On the other end of the court, the Mountaineers have been just as good. Despite its youth, this team has two staples of Beilein's best teams: taking care of the basketball, and shooting the three. As a team, the Mountaineers are averaging just over 10 turnovers a game. They've offset that by an average of 18 assists per contest. Junior point guard Darris Nichols has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.8, good enough for 12th in the nation. That statistic is even more impressive when one considers that Nichols is playing more than 30 minutes per game.
A look at the three-point numbers show that the Mountaineers are averaging 11 made three's per contest, which is fourth in the nation. Frank Young and Alex Ruoff lead the team in that category, with 22 and 21 three-pointers respectively. Ruoff is shooting nearly 44 percent from behind the arc, while Young is making his at a clip of 38.6. As a team, West Virginia is shooting nearly 40 percent from downtown.
So, despite not having household names like Kevin Pittsnogle, Mike Gansey, or any of the other seniors from last year's team, the Blue and Gold continues to win.
"I think that’s been the thing that I like the most about this team, is our adjustment from a situation where we’ve had essentially the same guys at for four consecutive years that are now gone," noted Beilein. "Darris Nichols only had 13 turnovers last year, so he does take care of it. Alex Ruoff, who is playing that Patrick Beilein or Johannes Herber spot (at the off-guard position), hasn’t dropped off a step at all so far."
So far. That's the key phrase. So far, this team has been better than expected. As Beilein is quick to point out, though, it is still very, very early.