West Virginia again dictated pace and controlled the majority of play in securing its 11th win in the first dozen games with the 77-44 victory over a Wofford team expected to exude much more poise than it could ever muster.
The 11-1 start, the team’s best since the 2010 Final Four club matched that mark, could easily have been 12-0 if WVU could have finished against LSU, a team it led by 14 in the second half before defensive lapses down the stretch, including one on the final scoring play, allowed the Tigers the upset. Of course, West Virginia could have also dropped games against Marshall and Boston College, and perhaps a few others pending the outcome of a handful of plays. For the most part, though, the Mountaineers are where they deserve to be – for lack of a better term – in the record department.
But what of some of the less tangible items, which begs the related inquiry: What have we learned, and the corollary, what remains as the most pressing of questions as WVU heads into its final nonconference contest, a Dec. 30 home game against Virginia Tech. On a point-by-point basis, here’s what is apparent about this version of Huggins’ Mountaineers:
- First, the entire group gives effort. There isn’t a significant period of slacking, and the hustle and intensity on the defensive end has been the crux of the success thus far. There’s simply too much depth, too great of numbers, especially in the backcourt, for players to exhibit any less than a full effort. Now with the type of guard gluttony he’s desired, Huggins can send waves of talent at the opposition, and ride the hot hand of the evening.
- West Virginia is, and will remain, a team that must get more shots than its foes to score in the same ballpark of points. The Mountaineers aren’t exceptional from three-point range, and even arguing they’re above average is a stretch. But in classic Huggins style, WVU will utilize turnovers, steals and offensive rebounding to create additional chances that allow for a lesser percentage from the floor, and yet a greater tally on the scoreboard. And right now, with a solid RPI and strength of schedule, it can be reasoned the Mountaineers do it better than anyone else, as they lead the nation in steals, steals per game, turnover margin and offensive rebounds. What’s more, five WVU, which ranks 23rd in the nation in points per game at 78.7, gets 26 points per outing (33 percent of its offense) off turnovers alone.
- On a related note, it seems most teams will struggle with WVU’s pressure. NC State’s guards were solid, as were Wofford’s, and the Terriers typically took care of the ball well, albeit partially because of their methodic, plodding pace. But even those two teams wilted because of the depth and intensity of the pressure, and there are few foes who can match West Virginia in sheer numbers, with Huggins playing a legitimate 11 deep.
- This team legitimately enjoys playing together, and when it hones the mental focus and physical effort, it is a threat to virtually any program in the nation at this point (Kentucky the exception). There’s no selfishness, no me-first play, partially because there are a ton of newcomers who haven’t remotely earned that right (not that past self-centric showcases had earned their place, either), and because everybody recognizes that the leader is Juwan Staten, with Gary Browne, in terms of the guards, a respected presence as well.
- Brandon Watkins is steadily working back from a lengthy illness that sidelined him for much of the initial portions of nonconference play, including all of the first seven games. The 6-9, 245-pounder is moving far better all over the floor, and has regained some stretch and a bit of his bulk that was lost during the sickness. Watkins seems much better cardiovascularly, and has begun to narrow the reactionary time in responding to live game situations.
- Jonathan Holton’s outside shooting can be sporadic at times, but the Mountaineers need him to remain a semblance of a threat to force foes to extend the defense, and thus give Staten a bit more room to operate. The junior started against Wofford where he ended against NC State, canning his first three and setting the tone for a game in which he finished with 11 points and five rebounds while making three of four from the floor in another unselfish display.
But there are aspects that remain a puzzle, particularly concerning individual players, among them…
- BillyDee Williams. Huggins sent a message against Wofford, inserting Williams as the last player of the bench even after the non-scholarship reserves. Williams has been sporadic, both in the games and practices, and his execution, and effort, have been mediocre. Sure, Williams had the eye injury early, and needed time to work back from that. But at this point, the team figured they’d be getting more minutes, and productive ones at that, from the forward. Right now, he’s buried behind Holton, Williams, Watkins, an emerging Macon and Adrian. And, again because of the depth and breadth of the abilities, though it’s lesser at forward than guard, Huggins doesn’t have to play the junior. And right now, he’s not as Williams has seen seven total minutes this season and taken one shot.
- Nathan Adrian. He continues to struggle shooting, and that has led to some confidence issues. Adrian clearly has the ability and athleticism – despite thoughts from some fans and pundits to the contrary – to play at this level. The issue for Adrian is he doesn’t move his feet well at times, and is then forced to reach as a defender, giving up fouls. To gibe one an idea, Adrian is seventh on the team in average minutes per game, but third in fouls with 28. The question from here is if West Virginia’s faster pacing has hurt him, as that aspect might have been hidden a bit more in the half court defensive set. Now, Adrian is forced to the initial wave of the press at times, and has some trapping responsibilities which, with his length, should probably be working a bit better than they are.
There’s also a question if the uptempo pace has hurt his shooting a bit, though fatigue really shouldn’t be that much of a factor, especially with as hard as the Mountaineers practice. Right now, the sophomore is averaging 15.6 minutes, and just 20 percent shooting (5-of-25) from three-point range – and arguably worse, just 31.4 percent from the field because of a lack of finishes close. Still, a handful of makes can quickly increase both percentages, and it reasons that one with as solid of mechanics and form as Adrian should eventually snap out of the slump.
- The transition from the press into the half court defense. It lacks continuity, flow and execution more often than Huggins would like, though the Mountaineers have certainly made that area a focus during a stretch in which there are no classes and just three games over 18 days. Players aren’t getting set efficiently, and the middle of the defense is open far too often for penetration down the lane. The easiest way to negate some offensive advantages is to switch every screen, but WVU doesn’t have that ability or length at all positions, so it has to pick its switches, which does open some added opportunities – though that aspect isn’t directly the issue in getting into the half court set.
- The potential fragility of team psychology. What happens if these Mountaineers are forced to endure a losing streak, which is likely to occur at some point simply because the Big 12, right now, has a whopping seven teams ranked in the top 25. That’s a record for the league, regardless of the overall number of member institutions. With West Virginia, at 18th, being one of them, that leaves six other teams, or 12 out of the 18 conference contests, against current top 25 squads. Of course, some Big 12 teams will begin to fall out of the ratings when the teams begin knocking each other off – though if it was like the SEC in football, both teams would remain in the polls, the loser even sometimes getting a bump.
There’s likely to be a two, or three, or perhaps more, game skid somewhere along the way, and it could quickly occur with a slate that features a pair of road games to start Big 12 action, one against No. 25 TCU, followed by home games against No. 12 Iowa State and No. 19 Oklahoma, then another away game, this time at No. 9 Texas. That stretch should reveal much about the Mountaineers, and give one a true indication of just where this team could end up – meaning in little more than two weeks after the holidays, WVU could have set itself up for a special season, or flatlined a bit with the need to recover. How the team responds to both could dictate results for the remainder of the season.
- Who, if any, of the guards will emerge in conference play? When the slugging gets tough, and there are no VMIs or Colleges of Charleston, who can consistently perform up to Huggins’ rugged standards? It seems the coach has chosen to utilize Paige and Dax Miles at this point in starting roles, bringing Carter off the bench for a bit of a punch, especially on guarding the perimeter. Paige is the best shooter, but that must be balanced with the defensive play. Huggins said early this season that there wasn’t much of a difference between the incoming guards defensively, but the money here is on Carter in that department.
Tarik Phillips seems to be playing in stretches, with some prolonged periods on the bench. He is quite active at times, and has scored around the rim off the pressure turnovers. But, and part of this is foul trouble for a couple games, there’s an uncomfortable ebb and flow to his time. In terms of an answer to the initial question, there’s a decent chance nobody emerges and Huggins continues to simply play the hot hand of the game. Still, the problem is that, at times, it takes a bit to find that hot hand. Double-edged sword, it is, having multiple options so that one can negate the lesser performance of another, but also having to find that best possible option each game. Still, it’s difficult to complain in any way about depth like this.