Rousing completion of Beilein’s final season at WVU
SHEPHERDSTOWN — What had been a much-applauded beginning to WVU’s 2006-2007 basketball seemed to fizzle out, when the John Beilein-coached Mountaineers lost in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament.
A 13-1 record at one time, it had been dimmed to 22-9 by the time Louisville dunked West Virginia in the Big East tournament that was staged at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
There had been a seventh-place finish in the regular season standings. With an early-round loss in the conference tournament, the Mountaineers couldn’t curry enough favor to be selected as an at-large entry into the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) came calling . . . and West Virginia was glad to accept.
It was an easy team to want good things for. The players were intelligent, well-spoken, mostly unselfish underdogs, with a team-first mentality and drive that visited too often toward the close of the conference schedule.
Soft-spoken Frank Young, a 6-foot-5 senior from Tallahassee, Fla., was the foremost scoring piece, finishing the 36-game overall schedule with a 15.3 ppg scoring norm.
Young sparkled in the NIT, enough so that he was voted the event’s Most Valuable Player.
Darris Nichols, a 6-foot-3 junior guard, Alex Ruoff, a 6-foot-6 sophomore guard, Joe Alexander, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward and Da’Sean Butler, a 6-foot-7 freshman forward all averaged just over 10 points a game. Balance and contributions came from all over the well-spread floor for Coach Beilein.
Joining Young, Nichols, Ruoff and Alexander as a starter was 7-foot center Rob Summers, a transfer from Penn State. Those five players would start all 36 games of the schedule.
Summers was usually quickly replaced on the floor by Butler and freshman Joe Mazzulla, a 6-foot-2 unshakeable pillar from Rhode Island’s soccer pitches. He was often in the midst of WVU rallies, comebacks and courage-testing times.
Freshman Wellington Smith and junior Jamie Smalligan helped give Beilein a virtual nine-man rotation to compete against the Georgetowns, Villanovas and Marquettes of the Big East world.
The NIT awarded home games in its first three rounds and then staged the semifinals in New York City.
Playing at the Coliseum in Morgantown, the Mountaineers first defeated Delaware State (74-50), Massachusetts (90-77) and North Carolina State (71-66) to reach the semifinals against Mississippi State of the Southeastern Conference.
In a pulsating finish, the Mountaineers won a stayin’-alive, 63-62 verdict to reach the NIT championship game against Clemson.
With Young again being forceful at both ends of the floor, West Virginia showed its usual equally divided scoring and gamesmanship to overcome the Tigers, 78-73, to hold aloft the tournament’s championship trophy.
A long banner denoting the title was subsequently hung from the ceiling of the Coliseum.
Some few weeks after the season ended, Coach Beilein accepted the coaching position at Michigan and WVU persuaded Bob Huggins to come to Morgantown from his one-year stint at Kansas State.
Nichols, Ruoff, Butler, Alexander, Smith and Mazzulla all became established names during Huggins’ first few seasons at his alma mater.