Typically, squads have a couple of deficiencies that crop up over and over. For some of WVU's recent teams, that has been shooting. The Mountaineers have put strong defensive and rebounding clubs on the floor that stayed in almost every game via dint of sheer effort and will, but didn't excel and getting the ball through the rim. In most losses, field goal or free throw percentage figured prominently.
Through three exhibitions and two "for real" games this year, though, the story has been different. West Virginia's players have exhibited a variety of problems, and those have run across all phases of the game.
In the public exhibition against Northern Kentucky, it was defense and effort. Against Oral Roberts, it was rebounding and play against the press. Most recently, in the loss to Kent State, it was half-court traps, turnovers and free throw shooting. What might be next?
Ordinarily, such a litany of problems might be a harbinger of a very poor season. Teams with multiple woes often don't have enough talent to fix them, and are destined to lose a lot of games. However, that might not be the case with this West Virginia team.
Before we continue, understand that I'm not thinking WVU is going to ring up 24 regular season wins this year. There's simply too much growing to do, and too many lessons to absorb, to expect the Mountaineers are going to challenge for the Big East title or win that many contests. So, if the definition of "success" you are employing means that many wins or league championships, you are likely to be disappointed.
On the flip side, though, despite all of these problems, I don't think WVU is automatically destined for a bad year. And, strangely enough, it's precisely because the Mountaineers have shown so many different problems in the early going that I feel that way. That might seem counter-intuitive, but hear me out.
Teams that have problems the reoccur on a nightly, game-to-game basis usually demonstrate that they don't have the ability to fix them. A team that can't shoot, for example, might have a handful of good nights, but for the most part they will struggle in that area all season. So far, though, that hasn't been the case for West Virginia. The Mountaineers have had problems across the board, but other than turnovers (which have been the result of different tactics, as we'll see in a moment), the issues have bounced around.
Take shooting, for example. The Mountaineers shot 59% against Oral Roberts, and missed just four free throws. So, unless this was just one of those lucky nights, it looks as if WVU can shoot reasonably well. It can also improve its percentage by continuing to score in transition, which it also did in both games to date. (Love Jabarie Hinds in the open floor and taking it to the hoop, by the way.)
We'll also examine rebounding, which went from abysmal to good (at least for Deniz Kilicli and Kevin Jones). There's no doubt WVU has the physical ability to rebound well, and it has different styles of players to employ. Kilicli can use his bull-in-a-china-shop approach. Jones, the ultimate garbageman (and I use that term with the highest praise possible) is a master of positioning, anticipation and hard work. Tommie McCune and Keaton Miles have the length and jumping ability to soar for boards, once they learn how to work. Aaron Brown and Truck Bryant both have the builds to box out and muscle past opponents for a few caroms. Given those traits, only a lack of effort should keep the Mountaineers from developing into a good rebounding team.
Now to turnovers. It's true that West Virginia has suffered a horrible start to the season in that category. Other than the play of the forwards (outside of Jones) it is the biggest concern I have at this point. Still, though, there's light at the end of the tunnel.
First, teams aren't going to be able to press WVU man-to-man. Hinds and Gary Browne are simply too quick, and too good with the ball, to give it up to that defensive look. Again, they still need to improve, but I don't see many player staying with them defensively in the open court.
That leaves zone presses and traps, which is where the damage has come so far. Against ORU, it was traps in the back court. Mountaineers receiving the first pass "turned turtle" against the press, which kept them from seeing the floor and finding an open teammate. Fixing that problem is just a matter of teaching and repetition.
The second tactic, which Kent State employed well, was trapping the first pass to the wing once the ball had crossed half-court, and also doubling down against the post when the ball went inside to Jones or Kilicli. Kilicli, in particular, passed the ball out of double teams pretty well, and found teamamtes for open shots. The Mountaineers didn't do nearly as well against those traps on the wing, but again, its not a lack of physical talent or ability that caused the failures. As noted in the preview of the Alcorn State game, West Virginia must improve getting back to the ball and presenting themselves to make themselves available for passes. A few quick movements of the ball will result in good shots and get teams out of those pressing tactics.
The important thing to keep in mind with all of this, however, is that it's going to take time. As head coach Bob Huggins so eloquently put it after the Kent State game, "we can fix it. Just not all at once."
Mountaineer fans that keep that in mind can enjoy watching, over the arc of the season a team that improves dramatically. How many wins that results in is anybody's guess, but I won't be at all surprised to see WVU competing for another NCAA berth as February turns to March.