The phone calls haven't been nearly as frequent this year between Canisius coach Mike MacDonald and his prime mentor, former Griffs boss John Beilein. For the last eight years, while Beilein was at first Richmond and now West Virginia, they would routinely talk and share ideas. And maybe even offer an evaluation of each other's clubs.
Not this year. Mentors and proteges usually don't like meeting each other but this duo is finally going head to head. Canisius and West Virginia, back in the Associated Press poll this week at No. 25, play tonight at 7 in Morgantown (Radio 710 AM).
"The two of us have always had a policy we'd never play," MacDonald said. "But the (HSBC) Arena got involved and wanted to see John's team come in. We needed to play there next season (as a rehearsal game for the 2007 NCAA Tournament regional). We were both desperate for games and we decided to do it."
The Mountaineers return to HSBC sometime around Thanksgiving or in early December 2006. Canisius will play at West Virginia again in the 2007-08 season.
"It's going to be very strange going against Canisius and seeing Mike on the other bench," Beilein said by phone Thursday from Morgantown. "It's kind of funny. We haven't exchanged as many ideas as in the past but I know in the years to come we'll continue to do that."
The Canisius-West Virginia game is one of three Big 4 contests slated for tonight. The University at Buffalo takes its 9-1 record into a nonleague game at Delaware State (7, Radio 1520 AM) while Niagara (2-6) tries to snap its six-game losing streak when it meets Appalachian State in the first round of the Duquesne Holiday Classic in Pittsburgh (8:30, Radio 1440 AM).
Beilein, of course, has put together one of his classic turnarounds in just three years at West Virginia. He went 89-62 in five seasons at Canisius (1992-97) and 100-53 in five years at Richmond (1997-02), taking each school to one NCAA Tournament and two trips to the National Invitation Tournament.
He went 14-15 and 17-14 in his first two years at West Virginia. Then came last year. West Virginia was 24-11 and advanced within a game of the Final Four before losing an overtime decision to Louisville in the Albuquerque Regional final. After the season, Beilein got a contract extension through 2011-12 with incentives that push the deal over $1 million annually.
The Mountaineers are 7-3 this year and coming off a 92-68 pasting of Oklahoma Dec. 22 in Oklahoma City. Their losses are to Texas, Kentucky and LSU.
"Before we beat Oklahoma it felt like it had been years and not just nine months since we had beaten a really good, top 30 or 40 team," Beilein said. "It's tough to find out if you're as good as the March before so that was important."
This is another typical Beilein team, one that uses Princeton-style cuts to create open layups and three-pointers. The Mountaineers average 10.9 threes per game and have 194 assists against only 93 turnovers.
"How they're only ranked 25th is beyond me," MacDonald said. "They're such a team of veterans, they really get his style."
Former St. Bonaventure star Mike Gansey leads the team in scoring at 19.3 points per game while 6-11 senior Kevin Pittsnogle is at 18.8. The sixth man is senior Patrick Beilein, the coach's eldest son. He averages 8.6 points and needs just four three-pointers tonight to break the school career record of 201.
"I think about the little kid at our practices in the Koessler Center jumping around on the mats in the corner and causing havoc in our offices like my kids do now," MacDonald joked. "Now I've got to figure out how to guard him."
Beilein retained MacDonald as an assistant when he got the Canisius job in 1992 even though he did not know him. Former Canisius assistant Dave Niland, now in his 12th year as the head coach at Penn State-Behrend, played for Beilein at Le Moyne and told his old coach that he should retain MacDonald and former Griff Phil Seymore on the staff.
"John said any help I give him would help guarantee a spot," MacDonald said. "Dave gave me a really good recommendation and he told me if (Beilein) got the job I would probably stay on so I knew who I was rooting for."
MacDonald served Beilein well at Canisius, helping to recruit players like Craig Wise and Micheal Meeks that became the core of the school's best teams since the '50s. And Beilein still raves about the all-nighter MacDonald pulled to put together a scouting report for the Griffs' MAAC championship win over Fairfield in 1996.
MacDonald and Niland are part of a growing Beilein coaching tree that includes Seymore (in his first year as the head coach of the Providence women), former Canisius assistant Kevin Broderick (ninth year as head coach at Oswego State) and former Richmond and West Virginia assistant Jeff Neubauer (in his first year as coach at Eastern Kentucky).
Like all of his former assistants, Beilein aches for MacDonald every time he checks the Internet or sees a score running across his TV screen.
"Canisius has been very close against good teams like Fairleigh Dickinson, Boston and Buffalo and we know Reggie (Witherspoon) has a very good team," Beilein said. "Coaches are always searching for answers and Canisius may be closer than people think."
Tonight's game is Canisius' first against a ranked team in exactly two years, since its 87-70 loss at No. 17 Syracuse on Dec. 30, 2003.