A Look Into The Future At WVU’s Press
There’s still one roster move yet to be made before the makeup of West Virginia’s 2018-19 men’s basketball team is complete, but it’s not too early to look at the changes that will come about in the execution of Press Virginia. Before we get there, though, one caveat: the Mountaineers are going to miss Jevon Carter.
“Well, duh,” I can hear meany of you saying. “No kidding.”
Sure, that’s an obvious observation, but it’s one that can’t be overstated. Carter was a true game-changer in the press, and although that term gets used too much, he was the very definition of it. Not only did he steal and deflect balls at an amazing rate, he changed what other teams had to do in order to compete. It wasn’t just the turnovers he forced and the transition buckets that resulted – he made opponents do things they didn’t ordinarily do just to get the ball up the court or run their offense. He was an ultimate defensive disruptor, one we’ll never see the likes of again. Just look at what Carter did to Oklahoma’s Trae Young, and the effect that had on both of those games. That was present in most every Mountaineer game last year, and the loss of it is going to be massive.
That doesn’t mean that West Virginia’s press is going to fall apart, but it’s likely to have a shift in design and focus in the coming year. Coupled with the loss of fellow guard Daxter Miles, the Mountaineers won’t have as many experienced guards with the quickness to cover 94 feet. That’s not to say Beetle Bolden or Brandon Knapper are slow – far from it. But in order to play some versions of the press, and extend it full court all the time, backups are needed at every position. That puts a spotlight on newcomers – Trey Doomes, Jordan McCabe, Jermaine Haley and Emmitt Matthews. Out of that quartet, can two emerge who are good enough defensively in the full court to stay with quick guards? Can Bolden, who did improve defensively last year, or Knapper, who didn’t play while recovering from a knee injury, become defensive foundations at the position?
Part of the answer could be to change the press – or at least to employ it in different manners. The first option that sticks out is one of putting a taller, lengthy lineup on the floor. With more athletic wings on next year’s roster, especially Haley and Matthews who are WVU’s tallest guards of the Press Virginia era, the Mountaineers could realistically put a lineup with no player shorter than 6-foot-6 on the court. Putting aside the question of offensive play for the moment, such a lineup could make passing difficult for opposing teams. Most every Mountaineer in our imagined quintet, aside from Sagaba Konate (more on him in a moment) has long arms and excellent reach, and given the requisite understanding of the press could be like a Jonathan Holton in the WVU pressure game.
One other tweak could make such a lineup effective, and mask any issues with depth at the guard positions – running the press in a three-quarter court or half-court mode. By doing so, WVU wouldn’t have to be quite as concerned with having enough speed to cover the entire floor, but would enhance the effectiveness of passing lane denial with its combined wingspan. Getting into traps could be a bit quicker, and with a pair of 6-foot-7 players setting them and cutting down vision, West Virginia’s press could be effective in a different way. Less straight man-to-man, more zone, with trapping an immediate goal could be the vision.
This doesn’t have to be a wholesale switch, of course. WVU can still go full court. Its current guards aren’t press-deficient. The added length will simply allow the Mountaineers to employ different methods of pressing, and not be so dependent on one player to make it effective. The key to all of this is a simple one – how quickly can the newcomers to the system learn all of the intricacies of the pressing game and become familiar with all the assignments?
This is more difficult than might be imagined. Just lining up in the correct starting spot is only step one. After that, defenders must make quick decisions, depending on the type of press being employed, as to what to do. Is it time to leave my man and go trap? Sink into a passing lane? Read the backside and find a cutter heading to an open floor spot, and pick him up? It was these areas that former Mountaineer Nathan Adrian excelled. While not the fleetest of foot, he understood everything that everyone was doing around him. Adrian’s reads and reactions were outstanding, and he made the right decisions over and over and over. That made him a devastating weapon in the press, along with Carter and Holton.
Or maybe not so easy, pending Konate and his NBA decision. He had some spectacular rejections on the back end of the press against foes in transition last year – so many that his mere presence caused a number of drivers to make quick u-turns when they realized that he was looming in the lane. He probably prevented as many shot attempts through intimidation as through rejections, and his return for his junior year at West Virginia would have a huge impact on what the Mountaineers can do in the press. With him anchoring the back end of the press, WVU can be more aggressive in the open court, push for more traps and take more chances, as they know they have a nice safety net behind them.
No matter how it all plays out, the key will, as noted above, be how quickly West Virginia’s newcomers can get comfortable executing the press in all of its different forms. Don’t skip over that previous sentence, though. It includes a dizzying array of options that have to be mastered and familiarity among all the different combinations of players who can be put on the court.
Realistically, not every one of those options is going to work. As practices and games unfold, some will be revealed as strengths, and it’s those that will end up forming the backbone of West Virginia’s defense in the 2018-19 season. The only safe bet is that it will look somewhat different than it did a year ago.