Right now, West Virginia is trying awfully hard, at times, to show what it cannot do. The problems are rather obvious. WVU doesn’t guard in the half court well, and isn’t yet able to switch every screen because its frontcourt cannot guard perimeter-oriented players as well as some past Huggins squads. The easiest execution in man defense – with the correct ability and talent – in the half court is to switch every screen. That avoids open lanes to pass or drive during recovery, and though it might present an interior scoring issue if a guard gets matched on a big, teams can typically recover in time to help that. The Mountaineers aren’t anywhere close to that, and as such, are going to have to be able to switch screens and execute the basic fundamentals more.
Huggins has said his team isn’t the same one that left Puerto Rico with the Tip-Off trophy after a 78-68 win over then-No. 17 Connecticut. In that contest, WVU guarded the perimeter reasonably in man to man, and its guards, especially Jevon Carter, moved their feet well to cut off penetration and the possibility of a drive and kick. The Huskies got open looks from outside at times, but not of the consistent variety as did the College of Charleston, LSU and even, at times, Northern Kentucky. Marshall followed that pattern, and nearly utilized their prototypical win-the-Classic formula by shooting 50 percent from the floor, and a solid 37.5 percent from three while WVU struggled at 38.6 from the field, and an icy 17.6 percent from three after missing 14 of 17 tries.
MU was able to hit that 50 percent mark because of horrendous half court defense mixed with what appears to be a lack of understanding on the back side of WVU’s pressure. As good as Devin Williams is at times, when he plays within himself and his own game – and this goes back to the Huggins idea of showing what one can do instead of what one can’t – he has struggled with recognition of spacing and how other teams can break down the backside of the press once it moves quickly past midcourt. Williams is often standing in a no man’s land between to players, where an easy pass or two leads to a lay-in bucket. He isn’t taking away one scoring option or the other, instead acting like a linebacker caught between the quarterback and the running back on an option play.
At times, one has to pick an option to negate, and allow a teammate, in this case typically Elijah Macon or Brandon Watkins, who is paired on the backside to try and eliminate or slow the other scoring option. Add that issue, along with all the easy lay-ups that come with it, to West Virginia’s somewhat puzzling difficulty in basic half court set-up, and teams are shooting 45 percent from the floor to the Mountaineers’ 40.8 percent.
WVU has, as Huggins has noted, relied too heavily on turning teams over, and because of the time spent on the press in practice, hasn’t focused as much on the half court as past West Virginia teams. That figures to change this week, as WVU finishes finals and moves into a period where it not only doesn’t have schoolwork, but also doesn’t have a foe for which to prepare for the next few days; the next contest is Saturday versus N.C. State in the Gotham Classic in New York.
The coaching staff is likely to focus on proper switches and match-ups within the man half court set – WVU was awful against CofC, leaving shooters open while often closing out on lesser threats – while also upping the teams overall conditioning. Huggins said recently he didn’t believe the team was in as good of shape as it was earlier in the season, and that will need to be remedied before the final nonconference stretch against the Wolfpack, Wofford (Dec. 22) and Virginia Tech (Dec. 30), not to mention the opening of Big 12 play on the road against TCU and Texas Tech. All those games will be before the Mountaineers have classes again, meaning the team should have a chance to significantly improve – and hopefully avoid the situation against Marshall where even in a 2-3 zone a lay-up was somehow allowed.
Another area in which West Virginia appears to be struggling (but might not be quite as significant an issue as even Huggins makes it out to be quite yet) is at the free throw line. The Mountaineers are actually shooting it will from the stripe in the latter sections of games, but can go stretches, like against Marshall and Northern Kentucky, where is appears awful. Huggins is quick to point out that every player is supposed to make 100 free throws every single day. Every day. The question from here – and let’s note that I’m exactly 749 wins behind Huggins as a coach – is whether a sheer number is the best ideal at which to aim, rather than a more pressure, or game-like situation within scrimmages.
There’s no way to mimic the true game experience, but simply making a number to make, instead of the quality of approach, might not be the best angle. At a certain point, if one has to execute the same basic task a number of times, the repetition quality stagnates and often declines because one is simply trying to reach a number unrelated to the overall quality of the experience. Players having to attempt to reach, say, a 70 percent mark from the line are penalized by misses. Players simply having to make 100 could simply toss the ball at the rim as often as they want without regard to percentages. And the percentage is what we’re after.
It’s obvious from Huggins’ statements that the coaches aren’t watching many of these attempts. Huggins himself said some players might be sneaking off before they get to 100, which is another problem in itself. But perhaps mimicking some of the game pressure, such as within scrimmages, or by putting players at the line and noting that a 70 percent make, or an 80 percent make, rate out of, say, 10 shots will avoid additional running, etc. might be as quality an approach.
WVU is shooting 65.3 from the foul line, with opponents making 67.2. That percentage ranks the Mountaineers 255th in the NCAA out of 345 Division I teams. Factor in the increased chances, from offensive rebounds, etc., and West Virginia has actually outscored foes by 44 points from the line. Still, this is an area that needs to improve, as it puts WVU behind all but three of its remaining foes (Virginia Tech, TCU and Baylor). This is likely as key of a time period in a season as any, and Huggins has said his teams typically improve more at this juncture than any within a season because of the spacing between games and the ability to focus on basketball alone. Once West Virginia begins Big 12 play, it likely is what it is. So this next fortnight, and the next three games, could begin to truly show what West Virginia will be this season.