In most cases, teams that are "deep" wear down opponents with an onslaught of talent. Under that traditional definition, squads with nine or ten players that have a lot of talent overwhelm their foes, piling up advantages when substitutes come into play, or simply outplaying opponents up and down the lineup. For West Virginia, however, depth is something different.
While head coach Bob Huggins typically uses 11 or 12 players in every game, it's rare when all, or even a majority of them, play extremely well. In most contests this year, there will be two or three players in foul trouble who self-limit their time on the floor, and a couple more who don't defend well, turn the ball over or make poor decisions. Still, the Mountaineers have been able to record 17 wins in 20 tries, and that's mostly due to the the fact that there's always two or three players who perform at the peak of their abilities or make big plays in key situations.Obviously, that group often includes Juwan Staten, who makes as many plays that don't show up in the scorebook as ones that do. However, there have been a couple of occasions where he hasn't performed his best, but almost always, someone is there to pick up the slack.
Take, for instance, West Virginia's gritty, grinding, 65-59 win over Kansas State. Jonathan Holton, who was a standout just three days prior in the win over TCU, had one of the ugliest lines of the year: Zero points, rebounds, assists or blocked shots. Three turnovers. Four fouls in six minutes played. Staten and Gary Browne joined Holton on the bench with two fouls each in the first half, leaving WVU without three stalwarts.
Taking one or two Mountaineers out of the game with a targeted defensive approach isn't likely to work, because West Virginia simply has too many players capable of making game-defining contributions.
Into the breach, though, rode others. Tarik Phillip, benched in the previous game, scored 12 points in 16 minutes. Jaysean Paige, Phillips' mate on the pine against TCU, hit a bit three and contributed seven points and two steals in seven minutes. Elijah Macon defended the rim, rejecting three K-State shots. And Nathan Adrian, still saddled in the mother of all shooting slumps, ground out four points, four rebounds, two steals and a block in 27 minutes while filling in for Holton at the top of the press.
This "next man up" mentality has pervaded West Virginia's play this year. While that makes the Mountaineers appear to be maddeningly inconsistent, as players yo-yo up and down between good, bad and average showings, it's actually a strength. Other than Staten, there's no one player that opposing teams can key on. Taking one or two Mountaineers out of the game with a targeted defensive approach isn't likely to work, because West Virginia simply has too many players capable of making game-defining contributions.
There are a number of side benefits to this as well. Every player knows that he could be called on at any moment, and has a chance to contribute. Against TCU, it was Chase Connor, who hit jumpers and filled the void left by Phillip and Paige, Jevon Carter, and Daxter Miles. Versus the Wildcats, it was an entirely different group. No one knows who it will be from one game to the next, and if Huggins and the players don't, it's surely a mystery for opponents as well.
Clearly, this West Virginia team isn't the most talented one Huggins has ever put on the court. But it just might be the one that plays the hardest, and the one that is deepest -- at least in the Mountaineers' definition of the term.