That was most on display against Iowa State, when the Cyclones – the best passing team WVU has yet played this season – were able to throw the ball over the top of the Mountaineers’ initial guard-based (aside from Jonathan Holton) pressure, and get into the second level. That left Devin Williams and either a fellow forward or, for the majority of this game, another guard, back to defend against what often developed into advantageous numbers for ISU in three on twos, or two on ones.
The cause of this was multi-fold. First, and most obvious, is that Iowa State has a player in Georges Niang that handles the ball as well as any 6-7, 245-pound player in the collegiate game. Head coach Fred Hoiberg plays a three guard, two forward look that basically translates into a four guard set with Niang on the floor, leaving just the 6-6 Dustin Hogue as a truly interior player, though even Hogue’s handles are decent. That ability to push the ball up the floor, especially when combined with the exceptional passing and the elimination of the first wave of WVU’s zone press, let Iowa State force the Mountaineers into a four guard set themselves. That decision was made even easier when Jonathan Holton, who played a very nice game in the win over Oklahoma, was lackadaisical in the rebounding game and simply didn’t seem to have the spark or quick steps of previous contests.
Add that with Nathan Adrian’s cold shooting and tendency to reach on defense, and the lack of ability to run from players like Elijah Macon and the disappearing BillyDee Williams, and Brandon Watkins’ struggles within the press (the sophomore’s a quite solid rim defender, but isn’t great in pressure), and head coach Bob Huggins gave up the thought early of having Holton on the ball, instead opting for the four guar set. That eliminated some of West Virginia’s edge in the rebounding game, but with the way Iowa State pushed, and then hit open shots at a 50 percent clip for the game, there really weren’t many rebounds to be had.
It is likely the worst match-up WVU will face this regular season – ISU shares the ball as well as any team, and currently ranks second in the nation in assists per game (18.4), 15th in scoring (80.4) and 16th in field goal percentage (49 percent) – and it exposed the Mountaineers on the back end, with numerous drives to the bucket and open looks from a variety of angles. That has happened in other games as well, though not to the degree. Boston College did it some, as did LSU, NC State and TCU, at least until the 16-minute mark of the second half, when that cumulative effect took hold.
Oklahoma was able to muster much the same through the majority off the first half, when the Sooners stayed within three points until there were less than three minutes left. OU sent a wave of people to the bucket at times, and the Mountaineers often allowed barely contested lay-ups in the early going before a closing 10-0 run gave WVU a somewhat surprising 45-32 lead at the break. The difficulties for the Sooners were obvious. They don’t pass as well, Adrian hit some shots and made good anticipatory decisions in the press, Holton was back to his normal form and West Virginia decided to pass it in the half court rather than have the “velcro hands” about which Huggins complained after the Iowa State defeat.
“I thought they did a great job,” Huggins said of Oklahoma’s approach to press breaking. “I thought their spacing was really good. They did some really nice things. We turned a bunch of people loose to the goal, which we really don’t want to do. I thought Lon (Kruger) and their game plan were really good. I just thought our ball pressure was much, much better than what it has been. I thought our ball pressure was very good.
“It ended up because of what they did more man to man than zone press. And it’s really a zone press. They just made us play man to man. I thought our ball pressure was really good and I thought that everybody who came in added to it. I still think it was a cumulative effect, and their guys at the end didn’t do the things they normally do.”
Which is all true. But at times the guards lost foes in transition, while the forwards didn’t defend the rim as well as one would like on drives. That led to open jumpers and threes for Oklahoma, which hung in the game on such until the late first half run by the Mountaineers. Hot second half shooting from Jevon Carter and better overall rebounding and scoring off such sent OU to a 21-point defeat. There’s no question the backside of the press still needs tuning, and that a running team like OU – it blitzed halfcourt based and then-No. 5 Texas 70-49 in Austin on Jan. 5 – perhaps should have been able to better exploit it.
“We watched film a lot, we saw what we were doing wrong and we worked at it in practice. It’s just that and effort, that’s all,” Adrian said simply. Added Williams, “We had a sense of urgency, man. We gave on up a couple days ago. We wanted to come out and prove a point and show that we could handle adversity. We watched (Iowa State) film and it felt worse than it was. We had breakdowns that cost us. It was more of us. When we have great energy and attitude and come out and play for each other, that’s what you are going to get.”
And that’s truly the beauty of a pressure system Kruger equated to some of what he faced against Louisville, or the ultimate compliment, Arkansas’ 40 Minutes of Hell under head coach Nolan Richardson when the Razorbacks won the NCAA title in 1994 and were runners-up in ’95: Even if teams are uptempo, without solid passing and an ability to shoot and finish around the rim, that won’t make difference against the Mountaineers in a game in which they are performing well. There’s no surefire defense, really, only a measured approach considering personnel, match-ups, and own and opposing abilities mixed with an idea of expected execution. And when that clicks, it’s a thing to behold. When it doesn’t, well…
“We watched four hours of film on Sunday (after the loss to ISU), and it’s hard to hide in the film room when you just keep looking at it over and over,” Huggins said. “I think they walked out of there not thinking, but knowing they had to do a better job. A lot of people now are trying to use their bigs to get the ball up the floor. So now they have to get it to a guard, or ball screen or whatever, to get into what they want to get into. And then when the shot is taken, Jon Holton runs – and he does run now – he runs to the other end and you’re sprinting like crazy trying to try to catch him down at the other end to make sure he doesn’t get a lay-up. And then Wanny does a good job of pushing it, so if he’s open we are going to get it to him. So they constantly run, which you don't do every game. We do, but other people don’t.”