During a three-week tour of Australia last summer in which West Virginia played club teams and the national squad, junior Guard Greg Jones, the Mountaineers' best player and freest spirit, jumped into a pit with a Tasmanian devil and poked an umbrella at it. "I just wanted to see how quick he was," says Jones. "I'm a little crazy, I guess. I'm not scared of anything." Except maybe Tasmanian devils, now. It jumped onto the umbrella and Jones jumped out of the pit.
But he's not backing away from anyone on a basketball court, nor are his teammates. After Eastern 8 conference victories last week over Rutgers 59-53 at home and George Washington 74-71 on the road, the Mountaineers were 19-1 and, thanks to Nebraska's defeat of Missouri on Saturday, had the nation's longest winning streak, 18. They had also won 27 consecutive games over two seasons at their Coliseum in Morgantown. "Surprised at our record?" says junior Forward Russel Todd. "Nah, tell you the truth, I thought we'd be undefeated at this point."
Most everybody else thought otherwise, if only because West Virginia, ranked 17th this week by SI, hasn't been a national power in the last two decades, not since the days of Hot Rod Hundley, Jerry West and Rod Thorn. One would think a primary recruiting tool of Coach Gale Catlett would be to evoke those ghosts. "I never heard of Jerry West before I got here," says Jones. Some tool.
Before climbing into the Top 20 two weeks ago, the Mountaineers were last nationally ranked in 1971, but they finished that year at 13-12. A charter member of the Eastern 8 in 1977, they've never won the conference title, not even last season, their best since 1962-63, when they went 23-10 and finished fourth in the NIT. This year they have all but clinched the regular-season Eastern 8 crown and an NCAA bid.
No team goes 19-1 with mirrors, but the Mountaineers are suspect. Their only impressive victories have been against Ohio State (73-68), Virginia Tech (75-67) and South Alabama (65-59), and they've yet to win a big game on an opposing team's floor. They've defeated Long Island University, Rhode Island (twice) and Youngstown State by just two points and George Washington, a team with a superb freshman center in Mike Brown but little else, by three. They needed a lane violation and a subsequent two-shot technical foul on Pittsburgh Coach Roy Chipman with 14 seconds left to pull out a 48-45 victory over Pitt. Depending on your point of view, all this adds up to a scraggy team that does anything it has to to win or a team capable of doing a Humpty Dumpty down the stretch.
If the Mountaineers do, in fact, make their first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 1967, they might have a shock in store because of the relative weakness of their regular-season schedule. Catlett would argue with his dying breath that the Eastern 8 is as strong as the Big East—"Like Barnum & Bailey, the main thing the Big East has done is a good job of packaging"—but he doesn't really believe it. And West Virginia's non-conference opponents have included St. Leo, Robert Morris, Wisconsin-Superior and Manhattan. Oh, yes, and Marshall, which handed the Mountaineers their only loss (91-78) in their second game of the season. "That game was absolutely the turning point." says Todd. "We weren't prepared, and we found out that when we take anyone for granted, we're going to lose."
If West Virginia is to be more than a nova in the NCAA sky, the reasons will be a) its depth, b) its guards, c) its crowd and d) its coach. Nine of the Mountaineers' 12 men get a lot of playing time. Their bench strength is particularly important at center, where they lack a dominating big man. Starter Phil Collins was off his game against Rutgers and played only 23 minutes, and against George Washington he got into foul trouble and played only six minutes. But on both nights backups Donnie Gipson and Tim Kearney performed adequately.
Collins can be excused if his mind wasn't on basketball last week. His wife, Debbie, a sprinter on West Virginia's women's track team, was about two weeks overdue when she gave birth to Carrie Marie Collins, their first child, on Friday morning, with Phil in attendance. On Saturday afternoon he flew to Washington, D.C. for the George Washington game, and though he didn't make much of a contribution, he did present West Virginia Governor Jay Rockefeller with a cigar after Rockefeller had spoken to the team following the win.
The Mountaineers' strength at guard was tested when top backcourt reserve Diego McCoy, who scored 30 points in last year's 89-87 loss to Tulsa in the NIT semifinals, was arrested for shoplifting in a downtown Morgantown bookstore after the fifth game of the season. Catlett revoked McCoy's scholarship, and he has transferred to Lincoln (Tenn.) Memorial University. "It tore us apart when Diego left because we were all like a family," says Todd. "But this is a strong family, and we stayed together." Starting guards Jones and Tony Washam are both getting better than three assists a game, and they are averaging 15.0 and 10.9 points, respectively. Quentin Freeman is scoring 7.5 points a game coming off the bench. Against Rutgers, Freeman was the Mountaineers' leading scorer with 19 points.
Jones's performance this season was anticipated. He was all-conference last year and made the NIT all-tournament team. But Washam, a junior transfer from South Florida who got a team-high 18 points against George Washington, has been a surprise. Catlett gave him a scholarship without ever having seen him play, taking the word of Cliff Ellis, the South Alabama coach, who called Washam the best guard in the Sun Belt Conference. Together, he, Jones and Freeman make up what George Washington Coach Gerry Gimelstob says is probably the best combination of guards in the East.
The quickness of Washam, Jones and Freeman figures in both the Mountaineers' zone trap defense and, of course, in their fast break, the club's chief strengths. "At times this team runs the break as well as any team in the country," says Catlett. He's probably correct. That's why there are groans and boos in the Coliseum when Catlett puts the Mountaineers in their "No. 5" offense, a passing game, which he often does to change the rhythm or to pull the opposition out of a zone. Jones would make a sour face when No. 5 was called, until Catlett told him to knock it off.
But if No. 5 is not No. 1 in the hearts of Mountaineer fans, the team itself assuredly is. The Coliseum crowd is a great delight to Catlett, who would rather talk about attendance than player stats. Attendance has risen steadily since he arrived in 1978, and this year the Mountaineers are drawing more than 10,000 a game at home. "If a team beats us at the Coliseum, I'll be stunned," says Catlett, who last lost in Morgantown to good ol' Marshall on Dec. 6, 1980. "We could be playing the Boston Celtics and I'd feel the same way." The Coliseum won't be available in the NCAAs, but the Mountaineers play four of their last five games at home, and they would have momentum going into the tournament.
After each home game, Catlett's radio show from courtside is piped through the Coliseum, and several thousand fans hang around to listen. "Actually, it just helps the traffic flow," says Catlett. Actually, he loves it. And he loves the 50 or so letters he gets every day, for each of which he dictates a reply.
Catlett and West Virginia seem to be a marriage made in heaven. The youngest of 13 children from the small town of Hedgesville, W. Va.—"I never saw inside running water until college"—Catlett went to West Virginia on a basketball scholarship in 1960. He played on Thorn-led Mountaineer teams from 1961 to 1963. Though he likes everything about his home state, Catlett almost turned down the West Virginia job when it was first pitched to him in the spring of 1978. He had been successful at Cincinnati, with a 126-44 record in six seasons, and he and his wife, Anise, a Morgan-town native and former Mountaineer cheerleader, were happy there. He made the switch for two reasons: the Coliseum (Cincinnati had no on-campus facility) and a multiyear contract, which the school didn't offer. West Virginia law prohibits state employees from receiving multiyear deals, and Catlett wanted security. So the West Virginia University Foundation, a private fund-raising organization, said it would guarantee his contract for four years.
Catlett is a graduate of what might be called the Famous Coaches School. He was an assistant under Lefty Driesell for one year at Davidson, an assistant under Ted Owens at Kansas for four years and an assistant under Adolph Rupp at Kentucky for one year. He learned something from all of them—the art of recruiting from Driesell, the art of X-ing and O-ing from Owens, the art of captivating an entire state from Rupp.
It seems, too, that Catlett's team has learned the art of winning. And all those Mountaineer ghosts have nothing to do with it.