Correction Of Shortcomings The Difference in WVU Win Over Iowa State
West Virginia’s men’s basketball win over Iowa State on Tuesday night wasn’t the most smoothly-executed game in Mountaineer history, but a couple of important corrections – or at least improvements – stood out as the reasons WVU was able to return from Ames with a win. Getting that victory was the biggest takeaway, but if the Mountaineers can hold serve on a pair of critical game components, they have a chance to make some noise in the post season.
The first of these is ball security, or avoidance of turnovers. Without question, that has been a problem for much of the year, but in recent contests turnovers have been lessened. West Virginia has averaged just 10.4 turnovers in its last five games, and in the process lowered the number of empty possessions in which they haven’t even earned a shot. That was of great importance against Iowa State, which suffered just 12 turnovers of its own, but still could not earn an advantage in shots off turnovers or points scored off them, as WVU turned it over just 10 times. In fact, the Mountaineers outscored the host Cyclones 19-12 off miscues – an advantage that had a huge effect on the outcome.
That doesn’t mean, though, that WVU’s ball-handling woes are totally behind it. Off those 10 turnovers, some six or seven were the result of terribly poor decisions or passes that shouldn’t have been tried at all. Those sorts of mistakes still have to be tamped down. However, at least the number was lessened, and it wasn’t a total approaching 20 as it had been in past games.
The mystery, though, is the flurry in which these turnovers arrived. The Mountaineers had two before the first media timeout, but went nearly the final 12 minutes of the first half without a giveaway. The second half, though, began with four in the first five minutes, contributing mightily to Iowa State’s rally. Again, WVU managed to reverse it, suffering only three the rest of the way, including a very questionable 10-second call by official Kelly Self. There didn’t seem to be any reason for the quick storm of turnovers, nor for their elimination. However, it is at least encouraging that West Virginia showed the ability to avoid them. Now, it simply needs to extend that for through an entire game.
WVU did have a four-game stretch earlier this year against Missouri, Texas Tech, Kansas State and Iowa State in which it averaged just more than 11 giveaways per game, so it’s not as if we haven’t seen a short burst of improvement before. Perhaps, though, the lessons of practice and video review are finally starting to sink in. If they are, that’s a plus in more ways the one.
The second boost came from the free throw line, where WVU saw 18 of its 23 tries (78.3%) find the inside of the hoop. That, too, has been a massive problem area this year, as every Mountaineer fan knows, but if that number can be kept at the 70% mark, again, that’s another positive for a team that hasn’t been able to count on a good return from its trips to the line.
One of the keys here may be in getting the “right” guys to the free throw line. Deuce McBride, Taz Sherman and Oscar Tshiebwe combined for a perfect 15-15 mark from the line, and keeping the ball in their hands is one recipe for success. Of course, that doesn’t mean WVU should avoid getting the ball to those players who are struggling from the line if they are in position for good shots. Derek Culver and Jermaine Haley have to see the ball, despite their ups and downs from the stripe. And just as the recent stretch of reduced turnovers provides proof that this team is capable of efficient play, so too does past performance of some of the players currently struggling at the free throw line.
For example, Chase Harler has dropped nearly 20 percentage points from last year to this, going from a 73.7% success rate in 2018-19 to 53.8% this year. Culver, currently at 53.5%, made better than 58% a year ago, and started this season off 32-39 before falling into a slump that now appears to be as much mental as physical. Haley, a nearly 65% shooter a year ago, has dropped to 61% this year. The point is not to belabor the misses, but to note that they have all shown they can shoot better from the line than their current rates suggest, and that it’s not unreasonable to think that one or more could right their respective ships in the postseason.
As the Iowa State game also demonstrates, these gains can make a big difference. Even with another big scoring drought in the second half, there were enough extra chances and conversions in these two areas for the Mountaineers to win. Granted, tougher competition will come in the postseason, but the proof in the execution is there.