Screened

West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins seemed to indicate that he was generally pleased with his team's ability to take opponents out of their offense following their win over Tennessee Tech . But after watching the Mountaineers again struggle to keep another team from penetrating at will, he might be ready to change that opinion.

Of course, Huggins is absolutely correct in noting that his team has been very good in stopping foes from running their pet plays and sets. By taking them out of those plays, they are left with no options other than to ball screen and go one-on-one. That should be like raw meat for wolves, but West Virginia hasn't been able to capitalize on making their opponents one-dimensional. Instead, teams have been able to work off screens and get the ball into the lane, which often results in easy shots or passes to open teammates.

The problem became even more apparent in the Mountaineers' 70-68 win over Missouri State. Time and again, Bear guards blew by WVU perimeter defenders as if they weren't there, or worked a simple high ball screen in the center of the court to get a gaping lane to the hoop. That often left two-on one situations in the lane, with a West Virginia interior defender having to choose between leaving his man to stop the ball or allowing an uncontested layup.

The puzzling thing, at least on the surface, is that West Virginia is much quicker on the perimeter this year than it has been in previous years. Freshmen Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne are both much faster than any Mountaineer point guard in recent memory, and swingman Aaron Brown came to WVU with a reputation as a tough, hard-nosed defender. All are trying, but none have been consistent enough to stay in front of their men, much less take them out of their intended directions or keep them on one side of the floor. There isn't any doubt that Browne and hinds are quick enough, or Brown tough enough, to become excellent defenders. But so far, the results have been mixed at best. And with much more talented guards coming WVU's way on the Big East schedule, this is an area that must see improvement.

The problem isn't all on the guards, though. When centers and big forwards come out to ball screen, WVU's defenders are having trouble hedging against the screen to force the ballhandler out of his intended path. Instead of forcing the ball away from the hoop, opposing guards are often able to drive straight to the rim – a dagger for any defense.

So, what's the solution? In large part, simple experience. Players that have seen 2,000 high ball screens are more likely to be able to read it quickly, judge the angle of the screen, the position on the floor, and make the best defensive decision. (That's often more complex than it looks, and it involves a number of quick decisions. Go over or under the screen? Fight through it or switch with a teammate? Trail or try to jump it? It requires quick analysis and communication with teammates – something that's only developed with repetition.

Even with those shortcomings, WVU was able to squeak out a win against the Bears. Missouri State coach Paul Lusk noted, "West Virginia plays such great defense that you can't run sets against them." The thing he left out, though was that his team was able, with four seconds left in overtime, to drive from deep behind the three-point line to the rim for an uncontested lay-up that somehow didn't go down. That was the capper on a game which features more open close-in shots than a pre-game lay-up line – but fortunately for the Mountaineers, it spun out. Huggins noted that the type of screen run – a big man screening for a guard – made the decision to switch on defense the wrong one. "We have to try to fight through that," he said after the game. That's the sort of quick decision discussed earlier. A year or so from now, West Virginia's newcomers will likely make that decision automatically. For now, though, it remains a struggle.

None of this means, of course, that WVU should let teams run what they want rather than forcing them out of their offense. The Mountaineers have grasped that ability very quickly for a young team, and it shows that the team is paying attention to scouting reports, listening to the coaches, and working to execute the defensive game plan. Defending one-on-one, and against single ball screens late in the shot clock, are abilities that are taking this team longer to develop. Once it does, it will be one of the toughest teams to score on in the country.


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