Everybody Brings Something to Dance Floor

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008; Page E07

The deterioration of fundamentals in amateur basketball over the past several years has been well chronicled, and there is little question that high-profile summer league basketball has emphasized electrifying dunks and highlight-worthy passes over basketball basics.

But hoops enthusiasts can see a variety of more esoteric skills and some intangible elements of the game on display today when eight teams gather at Verizon Center for four first-round games in the NCAA tournament's West Region. Whether it is Duke's prolific three-point shooting or Purdue's ability to defend passing lanes, each team possesses a unique expertise that has enabled it to reach the NCAA tournament.

For West Virginia, rebounding has been an acquired taste. After ranking 272nd nationally in rebound margin last season, the Mountaineers rank 114th under first-year coach Bob Huggins, who always has made rebounding a touchstone of his hard-nosed teams.

Players said Huggins hasn't changed the number of drills in practice, but an effective motivational device now rests adjacent to the court: a treadmill. If players fail to move to the opposite side of the shot and establish inside position, they owe Huggins one 44-second sprint on the treadmill, with the speed ratcheted up to level 15.

"After some practices, I would have 25 sprints," said 7-foot Jamie Smalligan, who usually guards the opponent's best rebounder. "You can hold on to the treadmill if you need to. There were some bad days. It's extreme, but it's just kind of getting that reflex to rebound. We didn't have that last year."

No one is immune, including guard Alex Ruoff, adding: "I'm not saying we didn't work on rebounding last year, but it is getting done this year. There is a big consequence now with the treadmill sitting there. Everybody got the point: We need to rebound, or else."

Rebounding could give seventh-seeded West Virginia an advantage tonight against Arizona, which was outrebounded in 14 of 18 Pacific-10 Conference games. But the 10th-seeded Wildcats have managed to overcome an even greater deficiency -- lack of depth -- to make their 24th consecutive NCAA tournament. Arizona's regular starters have accounted for 88.1 percent of its scoring.

"The funny thing is we come in every year and say how much depth we have," senior Jawann McClellan said. "But our starting five as a unit probably leads the nation in minutes."

Making matters worse, point guard Nic Wise missed four weeks because of a knee injury. Arizona has lost eight of its last 12 games, but forward Chase Budinger said the experience has toughened the team mentally.

Budinger also credits preseason conditioning, which included running football stadium steps as the sun rose, for improving the stamina of starters.

"When we are all healthy, we are a very dangerous team," Budinger said. "And we are all healthy."

Second-seeded Duke and 15th-seeded Belmont, two schools that will meet tonight, could teach clinics on three-point shooting. The schools combine to make more than 19 per game. The three-pointer is an ideal weapon for the Blue Devils, who have several proficient shooters but lack a dominant interior player. Guard Jon Scheyer said the shot is "our equalizer."

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