Missing Pieces

Three games into his team's Big East Conference schedule, Bob Huggins is still looking for answers in multiple areas. And while observers have been quick to point out the difference in WVU's play without Da'Sean Butler, the Mountaineers might actually be feeling the losses of Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith a bit more.

Butler, of course, was the star of Huggins' Final Four squad of a season ago; his most clutch player, coming through with critical basket after critical basket in big games down the stretch and all year long.

The senior was an emotional leader and a player that did almost everything at a relatively high level.

He could score. He could rebound. He could create offense for his teammates. He made intelligent decisions. He passed the ball well.

But while he wasn't a poor defender by any stretch, he rarely locked down opponents. The best defender on the 2009-10 West Virginia team was Ebanks, and Smith played a pivotal role that few appreciated at the time in facing off against opposing big men.

It's the ability to defend at a high level, more than any other, that Huggins' squad lacks thus far in the 2010-11 campaign.

Dribble penetration has been a problem for the Mountaineer defense, as it was for much of last season as well. But last year, Huggins had an ace-in-the-hole, so to speak, in the form of his 1-3-1 and point drop zone defenses.

The two tactics are similar in nature, and the 1-3-1 was especially devastating at times to opponents. That was largely because of the lanky stature of Ebanks, whose wingspan seemingly covered half of the floor at the top of the 1-3-1, leaving few angles for passes that would attack the goal.

Wellington Smith
To be fair, it didn't hurt that there were other players with long arms and solid athletic ability that could occupy the three middle spots in the zone. Butler and current WVU senior John Flowers were among those who made the middle level so effective at not allowing passes into the elbow or the low block while still not yielding open 3-point shots on the wings.

Huggins has lamented already this season that he simply can't put Flowers at every spot in the 1-3-1, as he is perfectly suited to play both at the top of the zone and on the wings of it. There just aren't enough players on the West Virginia roster who know the defense well and have the physical traits it takes to make it effective at the major college level.

Thus, it would make sense to play more man-to-man defense, which is Huggins' trademark anyway. But because of the issues with stopping dribble penetration, that hasn't been a solid option either.

Time and time again, opposing guards have slashed their way past defenders on the perimeter. Early in the season, WVU's interior players weren't doing a good enough job of providing help in those situations, leaving easy layups for those guards.

Huggins has apparently ironed out those wrinkles in practice, but even good help defense means someone else is left open on the floor. Guards are finding those players and setting up their teammates for easy baskets at an alarmingly high rate for Mountaineer fans.

So the veteran head coach even tried another tactic in Tuesday night's win over DePaul, deploying a 2-3 zone -- something Huggins' teams in his first three seasons in Morgantown almost never used.

Somehow, even that didn't work.

"Go back and look at tape," Huggins said, frustrated, after the 67-65 win over the Blue Demons. "We're playing 2-3 zone because we can't guard a soul. We can't guard a soul. So we're playing 2-3 zone and they shoot two layups against a 2-3 zone, which I've never seen before. I've never seen two consecutive layups against a 2-3 zone." There's little else Huggins can do tactically to alleviate the defensive issues.

It ultimately falls on players to stop their opponents, and at least so far, West Virginia hasn't been able to do that consistently enough. When it faces the premier guards in the Big East, that deficiency could be exposed in a significant way.

So while fans have already begun to look back wistfully on the heroics of Butler as the season progresses, they would be wise to think similarly about the losses of Ebanks and Smith.

Both, notably, were exceptional defensive rebounders -- another skill West Virginia has lacked at certain points this season, when many opponents have been able to compete with the Mountaineers on the glass and get some easy put-back baskets as a result.

The young Ebanks was a tenacious on-ball defender that often was matched up against smaller point guards because of his ability to keep them from attacking the rim. Smith, time and time again, showed an uncanny ability to defend players who were significantly taller, bulkier and stronger than he was, keeping opponents from cherry-picking easy layups against the Mountaineers.

They were every bit as valuable to WVU's success in 2009-10 as Butler. Ask Huggins. He'd surely love to have them back right about now.

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