Changing Times For WVU Defense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Forward Lamont West didn’t like the question. Head coach Bob Huggins is still searching for answers.
That, in a nutshell, describes the current state of defense for the Mountaineers, who are clearly a team in transition from the Jevon Carter-fueled Press Virginia days. After five games, in which WVU has yielded an average of 76.2 points and recorded only 28 steals, it seems pretty clear that West Virginia will have to find a different way of defending in order to have success this season.
Before we go on, it should be noted that such changes happen all the time in sports. Schemes and tactics are built around the strengths of the available players, and when those players depart, adjustments must be made. That’s not indicative of failure on the part of anyone involved. It’s simply an acknowledgement that a different path must be taken.
This West Virginia team, heavy on forwards of every stripe but hampered by injury and inexperience in the back court, just isn’t built for all-out, 94-foot, in-your-face pressure game. It does have other strengths, but Huggins is still looking for defensive measures which will utilize them the best.
“I’ve tried everything,” he said of his early season search after the full-court pressure game, of both zone and man varieties, produced more open shots for opponents than takeaways for his team. “We tried 1-3-1 earlier in the year, which used to be pretty good for us. We were going to play 1-1-3, but that is a little harder. You have to teach a whole lot more.”
Against Valparaiso, which WVU defeated 88-76 on Saturday, Huggins deployed a basic zone for a few possessions in the second half, in the hopes that fewer assignments would help his team. Instead, it yielded shots in an unexpected manner.
“I thought we’d just go with a church league 2-3 and make them shoot it over us, and they shot lay-ups,” he said bemusedly.
Part of the problem involved there was one that has plagued the Mountaineers for much of the year — the search for blocked shots. Opponents who penetrate aren’t challenging Sagaba Konate, Drew Gordon or Logan Routt. Instead, they are looking to drop the ball off to others after WVU’s bigs leave to help on the driver of the ball. Huggins made several different rotation changes throughout the second half as he begged his big men to stay on Crusader center Derrik Smits, who scored 20 points, many courtesy short dishes for open shots. When the Mountaineers finally did so, they were able to pull away in the second half.
Huggins hinted that WVU might look at a gap-based defense, such as the pack-line, to help cut down on drives and force teams into a 3-point shooting contest. That’s the antithesis of Mountaineer squads of past years, but one that might better fit this team’s capabilities. The press wouldn’t continually go away, but would be used more strategically, rather than as a bludgeon.
Posed a question concerning this transition, West responded as Huggins might hope — with a bit of defiance and determination.
“I don’t really like the question. We take pride in our defense,” said the junior, who has earned Huggins’ praise for his effort in guarding. “We think we can still press.”
That may be, but it’s still likely to look different than it has in past seasons. At one point in the second half, one fan sitting alongside the Valpo backcourt encouraged, “Hey, let’s get a turnover on this side!” It was part encouragement, part a wistful look back at past years, but West Virginia fans need to understand that the days of forcing 20+ turnovers on a routine basis and getting more shots in that manner are probably over.
Instead, WVU will have to hang its hat on rebounding (it was plus seven against the Crusaders, including a 14-6 advantage on the offensive end) and oddly enough, at the free throw line. As the Mountaineers have gotten away from the press, its fouling has declined greatly. It committed just 11 against Valpo, and while that might have been an indication of more work needing to come on defense, that helped build a 22-10 shot advantage at the free throw line. WVU outscored the visitors 17-7 from that location as a result, accounting for most of the final margin.
Still, West Virginia needs to find a defense that it can go to in key situations, or switch to out of its normal man-to-man as a changeup.
“The search,” said Huggins, “is on-going.”