Passing, Turnovers Top Impediment As WVU Hoops Season Opener Approaches
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — With West Virginia’s 2019-20 basketball season opener just days away, the Mountaineer coaching staff is pushing to get the team through as many different situations as possible while trying to figure out the best combinations and rotations of players for the early part of the season. Much of that will be a work in progress during November and December, but one item that all involved hope to have corrected and in a stable state is ballhandling, and particularly the passing game.
West Virginia’s two public showings haven’t indicated that is the case yet, and it’s something that head coach Bob Huggins has brought up during nearly every interview opportunity. A rash of inexplicable giveaways, combined with some ill-considered decisions to dribble the ball into places where it shouldn’t go, have been the major concern of the preseason.
Against Duquesne in last week’s 78-70 exhibition win, WVU had 14 turnovers against a team not especially noted for defensive pressure. The Dukes earned nine of those with outright steals, although a few were the result of terrible passes by Mountaineers that went directly into the hands of their opponents. Others were the result of either poorly aimed or conceived efforts, where passes weren’t thrown to the open side of teammates in the post, or were tossed where defenders could deflect them.
This was especially apparent in the early stages of the second half, where three miscues in the first three minutes had head coach Bob Huggins in a predictably bad mood. Following the third, he removed Jordan McCabe, who had committed the last of the trio, from the game, and did not reinsert him for the remainder of the contest, perhaps sending a message that the tolerance for bad giveaways had reached its limit.
McCabe was far from the only culprit, even though he draws the most attention as the primary ballhandler and offense-setter when in the game. The turnover issue is one that has affected everyone at different points during the run-up to the season, and just like in football, too many can ruin any hopes of consistent winning.
“We have so many different lineups, and so many different guys out there, you have to know where every guy is going to go in a certain situation,” said sophomore Emmitt Matthews, who has improved greatly in all areas since last season, but did have two turnovers against the Dukes. “(We must be) able to learn the rotations and get everyone else there.”
Familiarity is certainly one car in the turnover train. So too is learning how and where to throw the ball into post players – a lost art that the Mountaineers must develop if they are to take maximum advantage of Derek Culver, Oscar Tshiebwe and Logan Routt as they set up on the blocks and flash into the lane. Decision-making also factors in; West Virginia’s players have good intentions in sharing the ball, but that sometimes leads to forced passes when a more prudent reversal or easier share is available.
On the plus side, this team appears willing to listen and to take coaching. On the negative, passing, as Huggins often bemoans, is a lost art, killed by the one-on-one of summer ball play. Can the lessons of when, where and how to pass the ball be effectively ingrained before turnovers bite the Mountaineers in a sensitive spot?
There have been pluses to counteract the negatives. Matthews noted that the Mountaineers have been doing well in transition, which was at times a horror show last season, when passes on the run were as likely to bounce off ankles or sail out of bounds as they were to lead to scoring opportunities. The passing needed to get the ball out quickly, and to players in the right spots to attack the basket, has looked better so far, which indicates that the ability to make good decisions in quick timeframes is present.
If there’s a lesson this team needs to internalize before the first game, it’s that the biggest crime for the offense is not to get a shot away. With rebounding likely to be a strength (it’s telling that Huggins thought WVU rebounded poorly despite a 48-35 edge against the Dukes), just getting shots up on the rim could yield wins for the Mountaineers, as they expect to again make hay on the offensive glass. After a 2018-19 season in which they were second nationally in offensive boards (12.5 per game), WVU hopes to equal that total with the addition of Tshiebwe to a group that heeds Huggins’ call to to attack the bucket when shots go up. Thus, the demand to not give those chances away via turnovers is one of the resonating points of the preseason, and one of the biggest to watch in the first few contests of the year.