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Published: Friday, 3/25/2005

West Virginia keeps climbing mountain

ASSOCIATED PRESS

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The forward just got married. The little-known coach spent 25 years scratching his way to the top. All of the West Virginia players concede they're just thrilled to be riding a wave that could take their program to a place it hasn't been since the days of Jerry West.

Standing in their way is Rick Pitino, whose agenda isn't nearly as quaint. If he leads Louisville to a win today in the Albuquerque Regional final, he'll become the first coach to take three different programs to the Final Four.

"I don't think too much about that," Pitino said. "It's all happened so quickly, you don't have time to think."

On paper, the matchup between fourth-seeded Louisville (32-4) and seventh-seeded West Virginia (24-10) seems as lopsided as the vastly differing histories of the two programs.

The Cardinals have two national championships, seven trips to the Final Four and one of the best coaches in the game.

The Mountaineers have made it to the final once - 46 years ago behind West and coach Fred Schaus - barely sneaked into the tournament this year and are coached by John Beilein, whose resume includes stops at

LeMoyne College, Canisius and Richmond - not exactly hot spots on the college basketball map.

Pitino isn't going to be fooled, though.

"Any team that beats Wake Forest gets your attention right away," he said of the team the Mountaineers knocked out in the second round. "This is not a Cinderella story and they do not have a Cinderella coach. He's one of the premier coaches in the game."

For a couple weeks now, Beilein has been described as a coach who has taught his team to play the game "the way it's supposed to be played."

"It's a tremendous compliment, I think," Beilein said. "I think it means something different to everyone. It's sharing of the basketball, defense, backdoor cuts."

The offense is a ramped-up version of Princeton's cutting, pick-setting style. The defense is a 1-3-1 zone, a set that went out of vogue when the 3-point line came in because it rarely could be extended far enough to defend the long-range shot.

"It's a very unique zone," said Patrick Beilein, the coach's son. "No one in the country plays it. We really don't even know what we're doing in it. That's what makes it so tough for other teams to figure out."

Beilein's presence is part of the fun story the Mountaineers are all about.

He originally was going to follow his father to Richmond, but when the job in the Big East came available, both son and dad changed destinations. It was a tough adjustment for both, but they have prospered, and John Beilein says the awkward moments of coaching a son among players are rare, but manageable.

"Ninety percent of the time, he's one of my players and they're all my favorite players," he said. "Then, sometimes, I get upset and I take it personally when he takes a bad shot or does something wrong."

West Virginia's star of the moment, meanwhile, is Kevin Pittsnogle, a 6-11 forward who is the team's only native of the Mountain State. Pittsnogle, who says he models his game after Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks, made two clutch free throws to seal Thursday's 65-60 win over Texas Tech. Before the free throws, his coach told him to clear his mind by thinking of his newlywed wife. Two swishes later, the Mountaineers had taken one more step in their improbable run at a title.

"For the kids, it would be such a tremendous life experience," John Beilein said. "It obviously would go down in the folklore of West Virginia for a long time to come."

AMHERST, Mass. - Travis Ford, 35, was hired as the coach at Massachusetts after guiding Eastern Kentucky to a 22-9 record this season and giving Kentucky a scare in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The former star point guard at Kentucky succeeds Steve Lappas, who was fired after compiling a 50-65 record during four seasons. The five-year deal calls for a $200,000 annual base salary with additional incentives and bonuses.



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