Throughout the run-up to the 2020-21 WVU basketball season, the expectation was that the Mountaineers would pound the ball inside. With returnees Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver, joined by freshman Isaiah Cottrell, the Mountaineers figured to dominate, as usual, with shot attempts in the lane and at the rim.
WVU will follow that plan in many games this season, but it wasn’t in evidence for long stretches of the Mountaineers’ 79-71 win over South Dakota State on Wednesday evening at the Sanford Pentagon.
When Tshiebwe headed to the bench with two fouls after just four minutes of action, the rest of the squad seemed to forget that it still held a significant size advantage over its opponent. Long jumpers and 3-pointers, many launched with plenty of time remaining on the shot clock, helped keep the Jackrabbits in the game until the final seconds.
WVU wound up firing 32 threes – 41.5% of its total shot attempts – and made just eight of them for a sub-par 25% success rate. South Dakota State, known for its prowess from distance, took just 19, making seven. That greater efficiency, combined with its ability to execute backdoor cuts and drive the ball, were instrumental in the Jackrabbits’ solid performance.
For WVU, the firing line was open.
Sean McNeil made just one of his first six attempts from beyond the arc, and wound up 2-9 from distance. Deuce McBride, excellent in the mid-range with several pull-up jumpers, was 1-6 from downtown. Emmitt Matthews made one of his three tries, leaving Taz Sherman (4-6) as the only Mountaineer to shoot the way head coach Bob Huggins has described throughout the preseason.
“We shot way too many threes. We shot 32 threes. That’s way too many,” Huggins reiterated.
Tshiebwe’s absence and lack of effectiveness (he had just seven points and three rebounds in 14 minutes of action) may have caused WVU to be less patient on offense. So too did the Jackrabbits’ defense, which defended the lane and enticed long range attempts.
“They really did a good job of packing it in and not allowing easy passes into the post,” said Sherman, whose 4-6 showing on 3-point attempts resulted in 14 points. “That’s usually our bread and butter. They forced us to take shots we usually don’t take.
“Without Oscar, that’s a big hit, with him in foul trouble. We have to learn how to score.”
McBride led WVU in scoring with 23, while McNeil added 16, but their combined 3-15 showing from distance isn’t something that the Mountaineers want to repeat – especially in terms of attempts – anytime soon.
Still, those shots were also partly the result of West Virginia’s lineup for much of the second half. With freshman Isaiah Cottrell displaying some freshman jitters — he put up three shots from the key after subbing in for Tshiebwe — the Mountaineers had to go to a different lineup.
“We didn’t play big. We played pretty small,” Huggins noted. “A good portion of the second half we had four guards out there. But then we had a hard time guarding No. 35 (Summit Conference player of the year Douglas Wilson), so we had to have Gabe (Osabuohien) in the game.”
Even when teams play off perimeter shooters, West Virginia must learn to work the ball better to create movement, break down the defense and cause gaps. It did so at times, with McBride making eight of his 13 two-pointers, but there weren’t enough of those, or displays of patience, to make anyone think that the Mountaineers are ready with another option besides putting up three after three.
“When you take out Oscar we have to rely on different things,” said McBride, whose mid-range game kept the Mountaineers in the contest in the first half. “They played really solid on defense. I think there were a lot of shots that we can make, but that just didn’t go in today. We’ll look at the film and see other ways we can get the offense moving better and have a little more flow to it.
Huggins, meanwhile, appeared to be unperturbed by the 25% success rate from 3-point range.
“[Sean] shot it really well the last week or so, and so have [Taz and Deuce],” Huggins said. “When they are open I want them to shoot it. I’ve been thinking if we put Taz, Deuce and Sean on the floor at the same time we can really get the floor spread.”
Such a tactic makes sense, but only if WVU can make it work by either a) making a sufficient number of long-range tries, or b) exploiting that spread by getting the ball inside. On Wednesday night, neither of those things happened, and as a result the Mountaineers were in danger until the final moments of the game.