The Mountaineers, off a 60-56 loss at Duquesne, are shooting just 39 percent on the season and have failed to shoot better than 40 percent against six of eight opponents, Marist and VMI excepted. And even against the Keydets, WVU missed 16 of 19 three-pointers. That's 15.8 percent from behind the arc, including a zero-for-12 effort in the second half. Yet West Virginia won by 25 and had seven players in double figures for just the fifth time in school history (and the first in 18 years) because it rebounded and finished. It hit the boards, created putbacks and scored in transition.
WVU, however, has typically done none of those things in the majority of games this season. The triumvirate – or lack thereof – came to a head in the last two outings against Marshall and Duquesne. West Virginia (4-4) missed point blank opportunities against the Herd and absolutely flailed in transition versus the Dukes. One-on-one, two-on-one, three-on-one. Didn't matter. It appears, of now, that the Mountaineers have little grasp on spacing, timing of passes and the forcing of an outmanned defender to commit on the break.
And that, more than simply missed jumpshots, is the root cause of the sub-40 percent from the floor. Bob Huggins teams have, for years, lived on the premise that even multiple missed outside shots create added scoring opportunities capitalized upon by rebounding and finishing. Add in the creation of offense via defense for transition points, and shooting percentage to Huggins is what rebounding is to John Beilein: A nice stat that isn't quite revealing when it comes to wins and losses. Basketball is a possessions game, and the team that maximizes what it gets out of each possession – not each shot, but possession – typically wins the game.
"You guys think this is bad, I've had teams that shoot it way worse than this," Huggins said. "But we scored off our defense. We rebounded the ball. We got drilled (versus Duquesne) on the glass. Absolutely drilled on the glass. When we miss shots we have to rebound and get more shots. We didn't."
West Virginia is losing that per-possession battle because it's piling missed easy chances on top of missed difficult ones. Rare were past Huggins players who didn't routinely flush one home off a board or attack the basket – and the opposing player – in transition. But, as Huggins noted, Deniz Kilicli misses 12 of 19 from the floor, all from close, against Marshall. Then the 6-9, 260 pounder gets just one defensive rebound in 33 minutes against Duquesne, often giving up too much space near the rim by boxing the opposition far out, only to see the Dukes' superior quickness utilized in getting around him and to the ball faster.
"We have a guy who plays 33 minutes, gets one defensive rebound," Huggins said. "He's the biggest guy on the floor. You're not going to win."
But, in fairness, it's far from being just Kilicli. Aaric Murray has missed easy shots. He's struggling creating inside with his back to the basket and he's still limited because of conditioning. Jabarie Hinds has been in a shooting funk. You think the Mountaineers overall have been bad? Hinds is worse, statistically, shooting 35.4 percent (23-of-65) from the floor, including 27.3 percent (six-of-22) from three-point range. Terry Henderson has a three-on-one runout against Duquesne, and can't find an open man to score. Gary Browne's a heady two-guard who does good things. But his career-high in three-pointers in a single game is two. He's five-of-19 (26.3%) from outside this season. Kevin Noreen refused to shoot last game after blasting Virginia Tech. Juwan Staten is the only solid slasher the team has of now – though one must point out that when teams pack the paint as they have, nobody can score near the rim.
"The truth is, we created some offense from our defense," Huggins said. "We did do that. But we didn't finish it. We had opportunities when we were up double figures in the second half to push it to 20 and didn't do it. We had a good look at a three in the corner when we are down by three and we miss it. Then we rebound and miss and we rebound it again and miss that one.
"We got a false sense of security. We got up 15 and then we took some bad shots. We were horrible in transition and that led to transition on their end. That let them back in the game in a quicker way. And then we're struggling shooting threes. They make a three, then they made another three and then they had a lot of confidence to shoot threes. You have to give them a lot of credit. They made open shots and we didn't. We gave them open shots and they made them. We had all kinds of open shots and didn't make them."
Right now, there's simply no other way to look at this than to note that the Duquesne defeat essentially wiped out the Virginia Tech victory. One is likely to be an RPI top 100 win, and the other, based around how the team is playing, a bottom 200 loss. And, now, West Virginia is staring at a third-ranked Michigan team that is fundamentally sound, doesn't turn the ball over and can shoot. The Wolverines, 10-0 for the first time since the school win the 1989 national title, are hitting better than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range.
But, following that, there's time and the talent to get better. WVU plays host to Oakland, Radford and Eastern Kentucky before opening Big 12 play with another home game against Oklahoma. The schedule, combined with the holiday break, will give Huggins and his staff chances to work on kinks. It won't be solved quickly. But it's tough to believe the Mountaineers will continue to shoot as poorly as they have, not because WVU has shooters, but because under Huggins even his most mediocre teams learned how to eventually score close and finish in transition.
"We have more time now that school is out," Huggins said. "We'll have more time to get in there and work. I can't make them be in there now. … Here's the way – and this is how I've always been able to get through to guys, and I haven't to these guys yet – the good players that I had here stayed every day. I can't make them stay. We have a time limit during the season during school. But are they going to stay? I'm talking about the Joe Alexanders, the Da'Sean Butlers, the Kevin Jones'. They stayed. Every day. Every single day. We have guys who will stay one day and think it's fixed, two days and think it's fixed. It doesn't work like that."