Yes, the Mountaineers came within one basket of shooting better than 50 percent from the floor for the fourth time in five games to start the season. Yes, guard Eron Harris and Juwan Staten stayed hot, topping four players in double figures and leading Presbyterian head coach Gregg Nibert to say they "tried to do everything we could to try to stop Juwan Staten and Eron Harris. They are two tremendous guards that could be top two at their position in the country, in terms of how they complement each other. My hats off to (WVU). I think they will be nationally ranked sooner rather than later."
Heady stuff. Yet it was West Virginia's defense, and head coach Bob Huggins decision to play a half court trap, and then a 1-3-1 zone, that truly spurred the Mountaineers to the 88-55 win. WVU jumped to a 7-0 lead in the game's first 91 seconds, but then could only increase that to 15 at 35-20 before Huggins went to the zone. That 20th Presbyterian point, coming with 4:23 left in the half, would be its last over a 12:23 stretch of game time spanning both halves. The half court trap caused four turnovers and four missed shots in the final 4:23 as West Virginia staked a 48-22 at the break.
"We tried to play a little bit of half-court trap to get them to play faster," Huggins said. "We were kind of lethargic starting out. I thought if we were going to work on that, then we needed to try some 1-3-1 defense too, just to work on it. I told them coming in that this game was about us working on us and us getting better. That was the focus of the couple days that we had to get ready. I don't know if we accomplished it."
Granted, this wasn't even a decent team, let alone an offensive power. Presbyterian fell to just 1-5 and was ranked in one RPI poll as 346th out of 351 Division I teams entering the game. But WVU's ability to hold even the Blue Hose to just three points through the first 8:02 of the second half via its 1-3-1 was impressive. Virtually every conceivable offensive approach was stymied. Players denied direct passing lanes and swarmed foes when they finally received lofted passes over the top. Step throughs and attacks off the bounce were denied for the most part. When Presbyterian finally hit its first field goal of the second half, the Mountaineers had gone on an extended 26-5 run to lead 61-25 with 12 minutes remaining.
"I thought they did a tremendous job of going to the 1-3-1 zone, which really caused us some problems. Their defense, combined with our quick shots, really took us out of the game," Nibert said. "It is a credit to the defense and our lack of experience. We had a good pace but then could not keep up. I do not know if we scored in the last eight to ten minutes, but it is a credit to their unbelievable defense. At the ten minute mark in the first half, we had them right where we wanted them. We wanted to finish the game right there. We wanted to keep to our pace and slow the game down. Unfortunately, we took some ill-advised shots."
Presbyterian won't be confused with a top 50 team anytime this season. But the Blue Hose made an effort at playing together and tried to share the ball well. There simply wasn't any way to attack a zone with their decidedly inferior talent against a team that hustles and had a far better basketball IQ this season. And that's the biggest difference thus far. Guard Terry Henderson alluded to as much in the postgame, saying WVU "feeds off each other. I think our rebounding is already better than last year and we are pushing. They're good basketball players. They do all the things they need to do."
Even Devin Williams, who seems to be more polished than expected as a freshman, handled his first time in the half court trap and 1-3-1 zone well. The forward said it was his first time playing the 1-3-1 in a while – he played a 2-3 and 3-2 in high school – and even again lesser competition, it was imperative to "create good habits. If I'm not making the right rotation (against Presbyterian), then what's going t be the difference when we are really playing somebody?
"I'm trying to keep in mind what we have to do defensively, making our rotations and talking a bit more on the back side. We aren't really worried about who we are playing. We were worried about what we were doing. It's not hard. You have an area, and you play that area and talk. I think it's going to work out. We are probably going to do a bit more zone. When we are in the zone, it's to keep the ball out of the middle."
West Virginia forced 19 turnovers, getting 18 points out of those. It also continued to share the ball well, tallying 18 assists on 31 field goals, with Staten amassing six assists in the first half alone. The Mountaineers will face a steady uptick in competition level in the latter portions of the Cancun Challenge. Old Dominion has won four straight after an opening overtime loss to Missouri State, all by at least 10 points and two games by 20. If WVU defeats the Monarchs, it would likely play No. 12 Wisconsin (6-0), who plays a difficult-to-defend swing offense under head coach Bo Ryan. The Badgers, who are shooting 49.4 percent from the field, face 5-0 Saint Louis in its third game of the Challenge.
"We were able to work on some things, which was good," Huggins said of Presbyterian. "I like these games. They're a little more relaxing. We still don't understand the rotations that we have to make. Honestly, we haven't spent a lot of time playing the 1-3-1. This may be a better half court trapping team than anything. We're going to keep throwing it out there a little bit. Hopefully people will spend some more time preparing for us instead of preparing themselves."