Game Won With 1-3-1

What looked like another nail-biter for the first 30 minutes turned into a relatively easy win for West Virginia on Saturday, as the Mountaineers stymied Radford down the stretch with a 1-3-1 zone defense that may be the team's best option at this point.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say the 1-3-1 won Saturday's 72-62 decision for WVU, as the game-deciding 18-4 run immediately followed the change in defenses. Radford simply had no answer, no way to decisively attack the goal against the Mountaineers' lengthy midline, which consisted mostly of Dominique Rutledge, Aaric Murray and Keaton Miles.

That had not been the case in the first 30 minutes of the game, as the Highlanders attacked the rim seemingly at will against the man-to-man defense that has been a Bob Huggins staple during his lengthy, Hall of Fame-worthy career.

"Occasional?" Huggins said sarcastically when I asked him about his team's "occasional" issues in man-to-man defense. "You're too kind."

Still, there are reasons Huggins typically does not like to utilize the 1-3-1 defense for an entire game (though he noted he did so in the 2010 Elite Eight game against Kentucky), as it is much harder for players to rebound out of the zone.

He also indicated he doesn't believe the defense is as effective when used for an entire game, as opponents eventually figure it out. It is best used, in his view, as a change of pace -- a way to force opponents to use more of the shot clock, to get them passing around the perimeter instead of attacking the lane.

Even with a roster of players who don't have extensive experience in the scheme, the 1-3-1 has been effective in those aims on multiple occasions this season. It was the case again against Radford, as West Virginia forced several turnovers after the change and turned a few into easy transition baskets.

But it is it this team's best defense? Or, at least, the one its players play the best?

Huggins, as he is wont to do, immediately recalled the negative when asked that question: the way Virginia Tech nearly shot it was way back to a victory in what was ultimately a 68-67 win for WVU on Dec. 8. It's that inconsistency that seems to be the coach's biggest qualm with the idea of using the 1-3-1 more regularly.

"That's our problem: I don't know what's good for us," Huggins said. "One day, something is pretty good, and the next day, it's not any good and you try to survive another way.

"We've got to get better defensively. The way we play defensively is hard, because we do get spread out. But [the 1-3-1] is also the best way to protect our post guys if we do just a decent job of guarding the ball. It elongates those passing lanes and makes the post feed so much harder."

As a result, it may behoove Huggins to use the 1-3-1 as often as matchups dictate in the weeks to come.

Even when WVU's man-to-man defense has been reasonably stout, it has rarely generated the sort of turnovers and transition baskets this team needs to help its still-struggling halfcourt offense. The Mountaineers committed 14 turnovers on Saturday and were not shooting well until they started to get easy baskets in the late stages.

The 1-3-1 a way to take advantage of the team's length and athleticism on the offensive end -- indeed, West Virginia likely would have lost this game without the performances it got from Rutledge and Murray, particularly -- while also putting those players in a position where their attributes are well-suited defensively as well.

It's hardly a cure-all, as Huggins rightly notes. This team already isn't exactly a great rebounding squad, and the 1-3-1 would do nothing to help in that regard. Other teams may manage to exploit the weaknesses in the defense better than Radford has.

But for now, with this team playing poorly anyway, why not try it a bit more often? It may flop occasionally, but it may also give the team another way to score and keep its best athletes on the floor -- both of which have been things it has struggled to do in the early stages this season.

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