Can This West Virginia Team Shoot?
NEW YORK — After eight games of the 2019-20 basketball season, the most confounding and perplexing question in the West Virginia corner of the college hoops universe is a basic one: Can the Mountaineers shoot the ball?
At this point, there’s no definitive answer, but the evidence of the octet of games to date indates that this squad might turn out to be even a little bit lower than some of the more recent WVU squads. More on that in a moment, though, as we first look at the current season.
WVU is making 42.7% of its shots — a figure that put it well down the NCAA rankings. The Mountaineers are 230th out of 330 Division I teams after the St. John’s loss. Holding down the mean — the exact midway point in the rankings — was No. 175 Sacred Heart, which was making 44.1% of its attempts. (The worst, by the way, was St. Peter’s at a frigid 33.3%.)
It’s tough to draw any positives from this. At least the Mountaineers are continuing to grab some of those misses, as they are tied for 14th in offensive boards per game at a symmetrical 14.0, but that’s small consolation. There have been a number of good scoring chances that have gone wanting for a variety of reasons — some perhaps quantifiable, some not.
The first is the difference between practice and games. While head coach Bob Huggins has noted that his team is shooting the ball well in practice, there’s not a breakdown of when and how that’s occurring. Is it in drills? In five-on-zero work? Or in live competition? Huggins doesn’t shrink from that last, so the assumption is that the good marksmanship shown in the Basketball Practice Facility hasn’t been limited to players making uncontested jumpers.
This factor really comes into play on shots in the lane and closer to the basket. It’s one think to make shots when working on post moves or drives against air or one-on-one competition. It’s another when two or three defenders are collapsing. WVU’s Derek Culver draws a great deal of attention when he posts and gets the ball, and rarely gets a clean shot off without a bump or a hack. The NCAA directive to clean up post play has been a laughable joke so far, as bumping, banging and especially reaching has been unchanged this year. Culver has been frustrated at times, and that, combined with some bad bounces on the rim, has lead to just a 40% shooting mark for the talented sophomore.
In no way should he be singled out for that, however. Emmitt Matthews is 18-41 from 2-point range. Logan Routt is 5-14. Gabe Osabuohien is 4-11 from inside the arc, and Deuce McBride is 15-41. Those aren’t all post moves, but they tend to be mid-range or in-lane shots that should have a little better success rates. Many of the Mountaineers are all still figuring out how to score inside, and in the mid-range, and for now there just aren’t enough players who have reached a comfort level in that area.
There’s also 3-point and perimeter shooting, which is the more obvious demonstration of West Virginia’s shooting woes. As Huggins noted after the St. John’s game, guys that can shoot haven’t been shooting it well, and newcomers recruited to shoot haven’t been consistent either. Sean McNeil and Matthews have been WVU’s best distance volume shooters at 44.4% and 41.4%, but past that the results have ranged from barely average to poor. As a team, the Mountaineers are making only 32.1% of their threes, a percentage that puts them 221st in the country.
“I wish I could tell you,” McBride said of the shooting issues. “Guys are in the gym getting shots up. In practice we knock down shots. I don’t know what it is out here. We might be thinking too much. Bad passes are a big part of it. We’re not hitting shooters right in the chest and they aren’t stepping into it. I don’t know. I wish we knew.”
The passing angle is an interesting one. West Virginia’s other big issue right now is the accuracy and decision-making in that part of the game. As a team, the Mountaineers have a hideous .93-1 assist to turnover ratio, which puts them 213th nationally. McBride thinks, and evidence supports, the notion that WVU can create good shots, but that those often never materialize due to off-target passes that are either stolen, deflected, or take the recipient out of shooting rhythm.
Whatever the reason, there’s still time for this to work out. First, WVU might begin to shoot the ball in games as it has in practice, but that might be dependent upon improvement in the areas mentioned above. The passing game, in particular, is a big concern, because that’s the kind of issue that often isn’t solved in one big leap — it’s a matter of incremental improvements based on repetition.
It could also, be, though, that the current stretch is just one of those that sometimes happens to teams — and that in this instance it’s happening at the start of the season. More data — more games — will tell the tale there.
Whatever, the cause, the Mountaineers have little time left to figure it out. A trio of games over the next two weeks are very winnable, but then comes a string of Ohio State, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech — none of which are likely to be pushed by a team missing 58% of its field goal attempts.
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Now for the look at recent WVU shooting performances. Compared to last year’s 41.3% mark, this year’s 42.7% success rate is a marginal improvement, although not one that calls for much acclaim. This year’s mark is also well below each of the previous three seasons’ success rates from the field:
Bear in mind that just a small increase in made shots can provide a big boost not only in terms of standings in shooting rankings, but in wins and losses. Say, for instance, that West Virginia could get its current percentage up to this year’s mean (44.1%). That’s an increase of only 1.4%, which translates to an additional seven shots made by WVU this year. That’s just one per game — and given one more successful make against St. John’s, WVU either puts the game into overtime or wins it if it’s a three.
Continuing down that path, imagine the Mountaineers had made two more shots per contest this year. That’s not outrageous, because we’re not talking about contested jumpers or acrobatic twisting reverse layups. That would result in a 45.9% mark from the field, and boost WVU all the way to 104th nationally. And, not incidentally, have kept them undefeated.
So, West Virginia’s shooting so far, while not good, doesn’t require a massive makeover to become solid. Simple execution of fundamentals — passing the ball to take advantage of good positioning, not losing the ball while in scoring position, delivering it accurately — could be enough to get the desired boost. Those efforts, just like honing a shooting motion, take thoughtful practice and work. If they come about, there’s no doubt this team can be a very good one.