MORGANTOWN - To imagine that there could possibly have been a better time for West Virginia's basketball team to be blessed with more than three weeks of extra practice time and a slew of exhibition games would be foolish.
Last year, when coach Bob Huggins started the season with five seniors and just one newcomer on the roster? Nope.
The year before, when Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith were ready to lead West Virginia to its first Final Four in more than half a century? No.
How about next year, when chances are that only two players will be lost and the incoming recruits will be a manageable two or three? No way.
But this year?
"Yeah, it's great,'' Huggins said in a masterful understatement. "It's a perfect time for us.''
And it's becoming more perfect all the time.
Dalton Pepper's exit from the program this week was merely the last dramatic change for the Mountaineers. That brings to six the number of players lost from a team that was making its third straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Three of those six were starters at the end of the season - Joe Mazzulla, John Flowers and Cam Thoroughman. Casey Mitchell was the team's leading scorer. Pepper was the guy who sealed WVU's last win of the season, against Clemson in the NCAAs, with his late-game heroics. Jonnie West was lightning in a bottle with his shooting.
They're all gone now, though, and with six freshmen and a junior college transfer making up more than half the roster, who wouldn't be thrilled with all that extra practice time?
The Mountaineers will get it courtesy of a wonderfully timed August trip to Italy. They are allowed to practice for 10 days prior to the trip starting in late July, will tour Italy from the bottom of the boot (Sicily) to the top (Venice) between Aug. 8 and 22 and get back just in time to begin classes and the individual workouts that are allowed during the month and a half before official practice begins in October.
"If you can only do this once every four years,'' Huggins said, referring to NCAA rules, "this is certainly the time to do it. We need all the work we can get.''
And all the bonding the trip will foster. There will be basketball, sure. Plenty of it. That's the main reason for doing these things.
But six fresh-out-of-high-school kids will also be able to travel and work and bond with the players who will be their teammates.