Mountaineers set sights on top-three finish in Big East

If it's true that it's always better to buy the worst house on the best block, then West Virginia women's basketball coach Mike Carey ought to offer his team as exhibit A.

At least he knew the neighborhood when he picked up his handyman's dream.

When Carey arrived in Morgantown seven seasons ago, the West Virginia women's basketball program was a Big East (and before that, Atlantic 10) tenement. The Mountaineers advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1992, but that glory year remained a distinctly singular proposition in the recent annals. Beginning with the 1985-86 season, the Mountaineers won an average of 13.6 games in the 16 seasons preceding Carey's arrival. During that run, they had twice as many single-digit win totals as 20-win campaigns.

Now Carey's 13th-ranked Mountaineers are in the thick of the race in arguably the best conference in the country, a league with two teams fighting for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament and as many as 10 teams still in the running for NCAA invitations.

Coming off a 5-21 season in 2001, West Virginia hired Carey away from Salem International University, where he coached his alma mater's men to six consecutive 20-win seasons and a 288-102 overall record in 13 seasons. A West Virginia native and former high school coach in the state, Carey knew the condition of the program he inherited but felt the infrastructure was there in terms of facilities and support to improve.

And as long as he had the support behind the scenes, Carey knew what to do to start renovating the program on the court. The Mountaineers improved to 14-14 in his first season and allowed just 62.4 points per game in the process, 16.9 points per game better than the previous year. The next season, they allowed just 60.2 points per game and improved to 15-13, the program's first winning record since 1996-97.

Entering play this weekend, the Mountaineers rank eighth in the nation in scoring defense at 54.1 points per game.

"I think it's all about defense first," Carey said. "I think if you can defend and rebound, it will create offense for you. So I'm more of a defensive coach."

One of those closely watching the new hire's progress in the initial seasons was Meg Bulger, whose sister, Kate, led Carey's first three teams in scoring (she also led the team in scoring the season prior to his arrival).

"You could tell right when you met him that he wasn't just going to come in here and win a couple of games, lose a couple of games," Bulger said. "He really wanted to take it to another level, and being from West Virginia, I think he was passionate about it."

Passion isn't difficult to spot when Carey stalks the sidelines. When his shoulders, mustache and booming voice rise as one from his seat on the bench to point out some unfortunate soul's on-court transgression, he cuts a far more imposing figure than the Mountaineers buckskinned mascot -- even without the benefit of the latter's musket. But for all his ferocity when the lights are on, Carey is more genially gruff after the buzzer.

"He was just such a personable guy," Bulger said. "I don't think a lot of people see that. And I think it kind of makes it a little bit easier for us to balance. Just because you know when he's on the court, the stuff he's yelling or the stuff he's saying, it's nothing personal. It's not directed at you. He wants to win and he wants to make you better.

"Off the court, I can't even tell you how many times we joke around about stuff he says or how he yells things. We'll be out there making fun of him, and he has a great sense of humor for that."

After coaching both men's and women's teams at the collegiate and high school level, Carey has a rare, if not entirely unique, perspective on coaching female athletes on and off the court.

"[Women] want you to coach them a little bit harder and they want you to coach a little bit more," Carey said. "And guys sometimes think they know it all by the time you get them in college.

"You can go in at halftime and you say, 'Hey, we're not blocking out, we're not setting good screens, we're not coming off the screens right,' and every girl in there thinks you're talking about them. And on the guys' side, they're looking at each other and saying, 'Hell, he ain't talking about me; he's talking about you.'"

And for all the success Carey inspired almost immediately upon arrival, the current team at least partly came of age during the longest year of his tenure. Coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons, an NCAA Tournament appearance and a run to the WNIT final, the Mountaineers entered the 2005-06 season with high hopes. But injuries and an eight-game losing streak to close out the conference regular season dropped them out of postseason consideration and seemingly doomed them to a losing season at 12-15.

But seeded 12th in the Big East tournament and with nothing to play for, the Mountaineers held three consecutive favorites to fewer than 50 points en route to a championship game appearance opposite Connecticut. They came up just short of a miraculous NCAA Tournament bid -- after pushing the Huskies in a 50-44 loss -- but gained immeasurable experience.

"It gave them something to build on," Carey said. "It gave us something to say, 'Hey, you know what, we can compete with the best teams in the Big East.' We were still a young team then, and I think it gave them a lot of confidence and made them work a little bit harder during the summer and a little harder during the fall. And it continued to go into the season."

Meg Bulger was the leading scorer on the 2005-06 team before a season-ending ACL tear in her left knee knocked her out of the lineup after 18 games (she also missed last season after re-injuring the knee). But the starting lineup in that game against Connecticut included then-sophomores Ashley Powell, Chakhia Cole and Olayinka Sanni.

Powell leads this season's team in assists, Sanni leads it in scoring and rebounding, and Cole leads in steals and blocks.

More than just numbers, West Virginia's experience translates to a certain amount of poise. Carey was understandably frustrated with a team that played on its heels in a 36-point loss at Connecticut in early January, but the Mountaineers rebounded to win their next nine games, including a nine-point win against Rutgers. With four games left before the Big East tournament and the Scarlet Knights hurting after yet another injury, the Mountaineers could enter the postseason with a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the conference tournament and possibly a similar spot in the NCAA Tournament.

"We talk about expectations," Carey said. "Our goal is to finish top-four in the Big East. Our goal is to make it to the NCAA's and advance farther than we did last year. We advanced to the second round, and our goal is to advance farther than the second round, which I think is realistic. I'm big on having realistic goals, also. And I think this team has bought into that."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.