So what, exactly, did West Virginia’s men’s basketball team do defensively to help slow a Texas offensive onslaught and engineer a comeback from a 19-point second half deficit to record its fifth consecutive road win?
Some people aren’t saying. Others, including WVU head coach Bob Huggins, drop hints here and there. Add in the many vagaries of defensive tactics, the use of adjectives that don’t really fit in today’s more complex game, and it’s easy to get lost in a welter of semantics and analysis while trying to figure it out.
It’s important, however, not to get lost in terminology. The term “match-up zone” as a description for what the Mountaineers did is correct as far as it goes, but in reality most every defense is a match-up, or has many such principles included. When a player or a ball comes into your area, you defend it.
That, of course, is a huge oversimplification. In today’s game, which has progressed far beyond the man-to-man or basic zones such as the 2-3, 1-2-2 or 1-3-1, there’s a mixing and matching of tactics and assignments. A defender may have to do something different depending on who has the ball or where an opponent moves to, even though the offensive alignment is otherwise identical. Different principles abound. They have to, to combat the huge increase in athleticism and speed with which the game is played.
But, in trying to get at just what the Mountaineers are doing, there isn’t much help coming from players on the team.
“We were just trying to run at them and play a lot faster,” said guard Deuce McBride, who is a key part of West Virginia’s match-up defense. “When you are down you can’t sit back and let them run their offense. You have to speed them up and try to throw them off.”
True enough, but such tactics can be employed in a straight man-to-man, or one that switches some or all ball screens.
Perhaps Emmitt Matthews can help.
“It was just man-to-man; that’s all I can say it was,” the junior forward said with a sly grin that indicated it was something more, but that he wasn’t going to reveal any secrets. “It was a little bit different from what we usually do in man-to-man, but it worked. We got them to take some shots that were questionable.”
Leave it to Huggins to at least partially let the cat out of the bag – not that it was that big of a secret to begin with. For several years, WVU has used what he calls the “point drop” – a match-up zone that starts out looking like a 2-3 zone, but can still cover aggressively at the 3-point line and force the ball into positions from which its more difficult to create openings on the perimeter. It also can help in cutting down on drives to the basket, as there are more defenders in help position initially to defer high ball screens.
In his first postgame comments following the Texas win, WVU’s coach noted that he switched his team into the point drop against the Longhorns, and went on to explain why.
“We gave up so many straight line [drives] in the first half it was ridiculous,” he assessed bluntly. “[In the second half], we did a better job of forcing them to areas we wanted them to go to, and did a better job of making rotations. We had three or four steals in the one stretch where we really made up some points. But a lot of it was doing a much better job of guarding the ball.”
Those steals were something that had been missing for a while from WVU’s defensive arsenal. While the Mountaineers weren’t using heavy gap-coverage tactics such as those used by the pack line system, they were, as Huggins said, rotating better and defending potential passing lanes more effectively. As a result, they forced 10 turnovers in the second half. Several of those came on clean interceptions of passes which, in the first half, were completed easily.
“We’ve been spending time on the match-up for a while here,” said Huggins, before going on to the more important reason for WVU’s defensive success. “It’s personnel-driven like a lot of things are. You don’t want bad defenders to defend, you want good defenders to defend. I think we did a better job personnel wise of getting people to where they can do things they are good at.”
So, more important that what to classify or call the defense is the recognition of who can do what effectively. If everyone executes their assignments, there is less pressure on a defender to stop a dribbler one-on-one – a problem in today’s game that many offenses exploit. It also works naturally against either a one-guard or two-guard front, and is not at a disadvantage against any certain style of offense.
Of course, it’s not a magic elixir, either. As with any other defense (or offense), players have to work to make all parts of the execution second nature. It’s not going to shut down opposing teams altogether. But if the progress WVU has shown with it to date can continue, the Mountaineers might not be so helpless defensively as they have shown at times this year.
“It had to do with the work we had put in and why don’t we do what we are taught to do,” Huggins said of what he told his team at halftime of the Texas game, “and our enthusiasm to get it done and our ability to help each other.”