Opposing Forces

Sir Isaac Netwon's Third Law of Motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and West Virginia's basketball team is learning that lesson as the 2010-11 season unfolds.

West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins isn't conducting physics courses on the basketball court, but he's seeing this law play out as he battles to find the right combination of personnel and tactics to make his team a winner in the rugged Big East conference. However, for every move Huggins tries, there's a downside that limits its effectiveness.

Take, for example, the 2-3 zone defense that WVU has utilized in its last two Big East games. Against Marquette and DePaul, the Mountaineers were unable to control penetration by opposing guards, and thus went to the zone in order to cut down on the open forays that were slicing their defense open. West Virginia had already tried the 1-3-1 and point drop defenses that were effective in past seasons, as well as Huggins' favored man-to-man, but nothing was keeping foes from driving the lane with impunity. At last, Huggins deployed the 2-3, and finally was able to limit, if not stop, the routine penetration.

However, with the 2-3 came a couple of setbacks. First, it's more difficult to rebound out of a zone than it is in man-to-man, and Huggins' troops are already challenged in that regard. They managed just 24 rebounds against Marquette, and while they did edge DePaul by three on the glass, the Blue Demons' weakness in that area didn't make them nearly the challenge that most Big East teams provide. WVU doesn't have the long-armed, high-jumping players it did a year ago, so it has to rely on positioning and grit to get boards this year, and the zone puts it at a bit of a disadvantage in getting to the ball.

Another excellent move that Huggins made recently has also provided good benefits, but contributed to defensive liabilities. That's the tactic of playing a three-guard lineup, which has helped solve some of WVU's offensive woes. The Mountaineers have struggled mightily to run consistent offense this year, and only Joe Mazzulla has been steady enough to get them into offensive sets on a consistent basis. However, Mazzulla isn't a huge threat in terms of scoring ability, so playing him in a conventional lineup allows just one of the trio of Casey Mitchell, Truck Bryant or Jonnie West on the floor with him. The idea of playing Mazzulla more to help generate smooth offensive play was thus offset by the subtraction of a scoring threat.

To fix that, Huggins began playing three guards, with Mazzulla starting the offense and two of the trio of Mitchell, West and Bryant looking to score. That gave West Virginia the best of both worlds in terms of offensive stability and scoring punch, and it was no surprise when the Mountaineers recorded some of their best offensive stretches of the season with the three-guard look deployed.

However, Newton still lurked in the background, and provided his ever-present reaction. When West Virginia played its 2-3 zone, it was forced to play Mazzulla, at a stretch-to-your-tiptoes six feet, at a forward position. Mazzulla, of course, is a battler with a huge heart, and he's battled opposing big men to a standstill before, but being exposed on the edge of the 2-3, not to mention being expected to rebound like John Flowers or Kevin Jones, is asking a bit much. WVU can likely get away with this at times, but it doesn't seem as if a steady diet of three guards in a 2-3 is likely to work in the Big East, or against teams that shoot better from distance than Marquette or DePaul.

There are always trade-offs to be made when choosing between different personnel groupings and schemes, and Huggins has likely seen just about every combination during his three decades on the sidelines. It just seems, at the point in West Virginia's season, that every move has Newton's Third Law riding shotgun.

BlueGoldNews Top Stories