Intensity The Quality Mountaineers Must Have
When West Virginia took the court in Waco Tuesday evening against Baylor, the Mountaineers’ season was at something of a tipping point. Coming off another soul-crushing defeat at Kansas, there had to be at least some worry as to how the visitors would respond. It’s not easy to read the mood, emotions or psyche of a team in any situation, but it might be the most difficult to make that judgment for a team coming off a huge high or a massive low.
From the first moments of the game, it was clear that WVU was playing with a great deal of effort and energy. In fact, it was very similar to what the Mountaineers displayed against Kansas a couple of nights earlier, and just the opposite of what they had shown in a road loss to Iowa State.
In a way, it’s difficult to describe quantitatively. Unlike points or rebounds, there’s no “effort meter”. There are no advanced metrics that measure energy, whether it be in ergs or watts or ohms. But just a couple of minutes of observations revealed that the Mountaineers were playing with that edge, at that high level of effort, that head coach Bob Huggins believes is the difference for many of his teams.
There are some cues to watch for. Defensively, the reactions are quicker. Harrassment of the ballhandler, with hands poking into the frame of the foe’s hands and arms, is evident. Yes, physicality is increased, and with it an attendant number of fouls, but so too comes denial of cuts (which should be a defender’s right if he establishes position first). Jumping, often termed “being bouncier” by Huggins, is also evident. Competition for loose balls increases. And in the one stat that is tracked by WVU, deflections of passes and dribbles go up.
None of these things happen by accident, and they all tend to flow from higher energy levels. Without that, a couple more 50-50 balls go to the other team. Opponents tend to shoot better, as they get open looks when defenders don’t close out as quickly, allowing an extra few inches of space. In the competitive Big 12, that’s often the difference between victory and defeat.
It’s also the difference for West Virginia itself, as Huggins often points out. Without scads of overwhelming talent, the Mountaineers can’t win many conference games by just rolling the ball out on the court and going through the motions. That will get it done against NJIT and Marist, but not against Baylor or Texas, much less against Kansas. That hard edge, that ability to push the action and play with aggressiveness, is the critical factor for this, and many, Mountaineer teams.
Of course, it’s not going to be there every night, With 32-plus games per year, some letdowns are inevitable. Yet, at this point in the season, those can’t happen if WVU hopes to hold on to a good seed in both the Big 12 Championship and the NCAA Tournament. It’s a slog, but the reward is in sight, and with a weekend home double of Iowa State on Saturday and Texas Tech on Monday, the Mountaineers are in position to lock up at least a third-place finish in the conference, and probably a four or five seed in the NCAA tournament.
To do so, though, the intensity and energy have to be there, but without the chippiness that was attendant in the second half of the Baylor game. The take no prisoners style of Sagaba Konate, and the less demonstrative, yet clear combativeness of Daxter Miles, Wesley Harris and Teddy Allen, have to approach the line, but not go over it. WVU was able to weather a pair of technical fouls on Konate and Harris in the second half due to the massive lead it built in the first, but in a tight game such a call could prove disastrous. Everyone, from freshmen on up, have been on the court long enough to understand the emotions that can flow in games with such high stakes, and they can’t allow their emotions to spill over — even if they are what fuel them in the first place.
In that regard, Jevon Carter, as he is in so many ways, is the model to watch. No one is more competitive, but he doesn’t come close to getting technicals. In fact, his demeanor might play well with the officials, allowing him to avoid a close call or two here or there. Even if that’s not the case, though, he shows how to compete with high energy without the negative side effects.
All that may sound easy, but it’s not. Personalities differ. Performance can provide negative feedback, which can affect effort. The best teams — and the most successful West Virginia teams — were the ones that figured out how to channel whatever is necessary into that energy on the court. The 2017-18 version has shown, over the last two games, that it can do it. If it can continue over the next few weeks, Mountaineers fans could be in for a very fun ride.