Immediately after any loss, there's always discussion as to the reasons for the defeat. Sometimes those are easy to identify, and all observers (as well as coaches and players) agree on them. At other times, though, the answers aren't so easy to come by. Angles are presented to coaches, who disagree with the reasoning or observations presented. Players, obviously mystified themselves, can only shrug and stare off into the distance as they try to understand what just happened. Those occurrences were clearly in play after Wednesday night's loss to the Irish, which was about as understandable as Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan.
This was my first reaction to the game. Bryant took but one shot in the second half, missing on a late floater in the lane that could have trimmed Notre Dame's lead to one point. In all, he attempted just six shots, and couldn't get one to go down. Did he pass up some shots that he should have taken? That was the general perception, but head coach Bob Huggins disagreed.
"Truck tried to win the game," he said more than once afterward.
Of that, there's no doubt, but a review of the game showed a couple of open chances that he passed on. I've said this before, and I'll say it again – Truck has to shoot the ball, even if he has missed some earlier. He's the best shooter WVU has, and the criticisms he has received for trying to fill that role show just how little knowledge a segment of the fan base has. Unfortunately, some of his mistakes get magnified, because he has the ball in crunch time and knows that he has to produce. Still, Huggins' point was valid – Notre Dame did everything it could to keep him out of the offense, and it was successful for the most part.
Early in the game, WVU tried to run Deniz Kilicli and Kevin Jones in its signature high post – low post set against the zone, but it didn't have a great deal of success. As the half evolved, the Mountaineers were able to get the ball close inside, but just couldn't get shots to go down, as evidenced by its paltry total of 16 points at the break
As it turned out, however, the Mountaineers didn't need to run the two-level game. In the second half, West Virginia was able to throw the ball directly into the post from the perimeter without the intermediate high post, and it met with considerable success. West Virginia shot 58.6% in that period, and routinely got Jones and Kilicli the ball in great scoring position.
There's no doubt the visitors controlled the tempo and made it to their liking. But was that really a big factor? West Virginia didn't rush its own possessions, and it didn't take bad shots even as it struggled to erase a ten-point halftime deficit. It was patient for the most part, and dealt with Notre Dame's 1940s style of play pretty well. Also, it's not as if WVU has been the king of transition, up-tempo hoops this year. While the Mountaineers have tried to get the ball upcourt quickly, that's been met with mixed success, and it certainly isn't the key to WVU's offensive game. The game pace was a tactical win for the Irish, but the strategic success was minimal.
Ummm, really? Yes, KJ missed a couple of shots he has been making this year. But he still grabbed 12 rebounds (often he was the only Mountaineer pursuing the ball on the defensive boards), and didn't have a turnover in 40 minutes of action. I understand that Jones has had better games this year, but to say he played badly just isn't accurate.
So, if it wasn't these items, what was it? Again, pinpointing one factor can be difficult, but there's no doubt that Notre Dame's second chance points loomed every bit as large as the late trio of three-pointers that rallied it from a deficit. Ten of Jack Cooley's 21 points came directly from offensive rebounds, and two other retrievals also led to Notre Dame scores. Cooley's scoring range stops at arm's length from the basket, so it would seem that West Virginia would have been able to keep him off the boards for some stretches, but he operated with impunity on the offensive end. Eliminate just one or two of those second chances, and the game plays out entirely differently down the stretch.
Obviously, the trio of treys in just one minute and 36 seconds was also game-defining. On two of those shots, WVU defenders went under screens, rather than over the top, which provided the shooters with the space they needed to get the shots away. Yes, Notre Dame was 2-18 from distance to that point in the game, but with five shooters than can knock down those shots, it can't be assumed that they are going to miss them all night. Given enough open chances, a couple are going to co down, and that's just what happened here.