Anatomy Of A Pass
West Viginia’s passing game has been mentioned several times as an area in need of improvement by Bob Huggins, with several different fixes listed as being required to bring it up to an acceptable level. Some of those involve simple fundamentals, such as knowing when to throw a bounce pass or when to lob it up high, or when and where to deliver the ball to the recipient.
There are other factors though, that can only be gained with the experience of playing with teammates and learning their likes and dislikes. Those have to come with court time, both in practice and in games, and thus can be slower to come to fruition than anyone would like.
While West Virginia’s turnover rate due to bad passes has been higher than the coaching staff would like, there have been signs of progress. One of those came late in the second half of the Mountaineers 75-64 win over Youngstown State last week.
The Penguins were continuing to hang around in the game, and trailed WVU by just five points with a bit more than five minutes to play. WVU worked the ball in to Derek Culver, but the active big man was immediately swarmed, as he was for much of the game. Reversing out of the double team, he fired what appeared to be a risky cross-court pass to the opposite corner. However, waiting there was Taz Sherman, who was already setting his feet to shoot. He received the ball and immediately launched a high-arcing three over the screen of Sean McNeil, and when the ball swished through the net the Mountaineers had an eight-point advantage, and enough of a margin to weather one more YSU rally and hold on for the win.
The sequence was a big one in the game, but perhaps a larger signpost on the improvement in WVU’s passing game. The Mountaineers had 12 turnovers — not great, but an acceptable number — and perhaps more importantly had 15 assists. Seven of those belonged to Culver, who has been working diligently on tactics to get away from double teams and find open teammates. That nearly doubled his previous high game assist total of four, achieved twice last season. It also continued an upward trend over his most recent four games, in which he totaled two, three, three and then seven against the Penguins.
“I’m figuring out how my sharpshooters like to play,” said Culver. “Taz likes to sit in the corner a little bit, and he kinds of hides off. I knew he was over here but I didn’t actually see him. I counted the players and there was one missing so I knew he was over there. So I jumped up and threw it as hard as I could, and I saw his head pop up. He caught it and shot it and it went in.”
One suspects that had the pass gone awry, Huggins would have blown a gasket, especially if he heard his still-learning prodigy didn’t have a visual on his intended target. Still it’s an indication of how Culver is learning to read the court and the game.
On the opposite end, guards looking for passes out of those post double teams and traps have to make themselves available and learn how to position themselves. Sherman, one of the seven new additions to the team this year, describes how the familiarization process has proceeded.
“It’s not a designed play,” he said of that particular sequence. “It just comes from practice and playing with each other, scrimmaging, getting up and down the court. You kind of know what is going to be open and what’s not going to be open. They double Derek on one side, so I’m going to try to slide window, and they took that away. Sean is smart enough, he’s on the same side with me, to seal my guy inside and Derek skips it over top.”
It sounds simple, and on one level it is, but it’s the time and work that go into the familiarization process that makes it a grind. But if WVU can get to a point where it can make teams pay for running extra defenders at Culver and Tshiebwe, it could be very difficult to defend. The synergy that can be created has been a point of emphasis for post and perimeter players alike this year.
“DC is such a good passer, you know he is going to find you,” Sherman said of his sophomore teammate in the post. “My job is to make the passes as easy for him as possible. And then my job is to make the shot. I always try to get into a window where he can see me, because he is going to get doubled all year. I told him and Oscar that, they are going to get doubled, but if they do get the opportunity to go one on one, you go one on one. We’ll do the rest – offensive crash, get back on defense.”
“Being blessed with shooters like that day in and day out, any big man is going to be happy,” Culver added. “And successful.”