By this point in the season, most teams know what their trouble spots are, and coaches are deep into schemes to shore them up – or at least make them less evident. Teams that don't rebound well get extra work on boxing out, or change to a defense that allows them to do so more easily. Squads that don't pass the ball well get extra drills showing the results of not only quick, decisive passing, but also of making the right pass to the right person. That's buttressed by film work showing both the positives and negatives that result from good and bad passing decisions.
For head coach Bob Huggins and his staff, however, the problem isn't that West Virginia does one thing badly all the time (and yes, that includes shooting). The problem is that a different issue or two seems to crop up in each game, forcing Huggins to play Whack-A-Mole and fix issues that have already been addressed.
At times this year, WVU has shot the ball well. At times, it has shown the ability to execute in transition. It's guarded foes aggressively and taken them out of their offense – sometimes. It has run Huggins' motion, five-out and high-low post offenses crisply – part of the time. Yet, again and again, like that annoying mole in your local Chuckie Cheese's, the same issues pop back up. Shots clank off the rim. The fast break resembles halftime youth group games at the Coliseum. Defense becomes an afterthought. How to fix that?
Huggins, for his part, doesn't bemoan the problem. He simply notes that he and his staff have to keep working at each issue, and that if the players put in work on their own with aspects of the game such as shooting and ballhandling, WVU will have success. However, this does have an effect on another part of the game that is usually settled by now, and that's one that will determine West Virginia's ultimate success in 2013.
It's become a buzzword – used by many observers, including me – to describe substitution patterns. The word is "rotation" and right now West Virginia doesn't have one. That's not necessarily a death knell for the team, but it does require a bench that is adaptable and ready to respond at a moment's notice.
First, a note about rotations. There's a lot attached to that term, and it's come to be perceived as a set substitution pattern that coaches employ game after game. In reality, that's not really the case, although coaches do have a guy or two at each position that he hopes to count on. What really happens is that as game conditions change, substitutions change. Players that are on the court for four minutes in one contest might get 15 or 16 the next. Still, there's a pattern to it all – or, at least, there is for most teams.
In West Virginia's current situation, Huggins and assistant coach Larry Harrison (who also participates in substitution decisions) are faced with plugging "a different leak in the dam" every game. If West Virginia's not passing well, they try to identify those players that can move the ball. If someone isn't playing defense, out he goes and in comes a backup. The problem, however, is that different players are showing different problems in just about every game.
That extends to the backups as well. So, it's not an automatic substitution to bring in, for example, Gary Browne if the offense isn't getting started correctly, or Keaton Miles if there are defensive shortcomings. Just like the starters, the backups, too, are very inconsistent in their play, so it's almost impossible to set a game plan to mask those issues. If each one occurred at a particular spot, Huggins could work around it, but that hasn't been the case so far this year.
There are two ways that this problem can be resolved. First, there's the hoped-for improvement that every coach looks for as the season progresses. There has been progress this year, despite all of the woes the team has experienced, and if it continues WVU could be a tournament threat come March. Can WVU, as a team, fix some of the inconsistencies it has shown so far this year? If Huggins has two or three consistent issues to address or work around, he can probably do so enough to make the Mountaineers successful.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, West Virginia's players have to get more consistent in a few areas, and become dependable in terms of shoring up that weakness when the team goes through struggles. One or more of the guards has to be a reliable ballhandler and decision maker. A defensive stopper has to come to the fore. A reliable scoring finisher in the lane has to emerge. With those bulwarks to lean on, again, other problems can be masked, or at least addressed on a game-by-game basis. But if the across-the-board, on-and-off again issues continue, it's going to be very difficult for the Mountaineers to make the push they need to reach the NCAA tournament.