Out of Balance

For much of the season, West Virginia's men's basketball team was able to minimize its shortcomings to produce wins. Faced with tougher competition and more familiarity with its approach, it is now on the brink of seeing a very good season devolve into something less so.

It was no mystery that WVU would struggle to score at times this year. It made up for that with determined offensive rebounding and good ball security, which combined to build big possession and shot advantages. However, both of those items have disappeared over the past couple of weeks, and with it have come three losses in the past four games.

Opponents have also adapted to West Virginia's press, and are employing new methods of attacking it. One which has been very evident is stretching the court, much as football offenses do by throwing deep passes. Mountaineer foes are running a couple of players vertically deep down the court, and they aren't afraid to throw passes to them. That spreads West Virginia's defense, minimizes the number of traps that are set and puts pressure on the back of the defense, which has trouble defending against the run-outs that tactic produces. The result is not only a handful of fewer turnovers (Iowa State had just 16 in their 20-point win on Saturday), but also more easy shots and scores. The Cyclones are now the fourth consecutive opponent to top the 55% shooting mark from the field -- a number that is almost always going to send WVU down to defeat.

Even more troubling is West Virginia's ballhandling, which was one area of a discussion in this column posted last week. Even against Iowa State, a team that played a good deal of zone, WVU had trouble protecting the ball. Cyclone wings pushed up the court aggressively to defend against perimeter passes, and either deflected or stole a number of them. With little fear of West Virginia's inside game (WVU bigs accounted for just 17 points), ISU didn't have to worry about providing extra help in the lane, and thus was able to defend strongly and deny passes. The final totals, usually in WVU's favor, were thus flipped. The Cyclones had three fewer turnovers than the Mountaineers, allowed just ten offensive rebounds, and produced an 18-10 advantage in points off turnovers.

Both of these items fall in the area of balance category. WVU held a wide margin in them for much of the season, but has now seen that advantage narrow dramatically or slip away entirely. Barring an unforeseen improvement in shooting percentage (not a likely occurrence in the short term), West Virginia has to find a way to regain those advantages. One other option, although not a likely one, is to back off the pressure a bit and see if that helps the halfcourt defense, which often gets shredded by quick shots and opportunities at the rim. Whether such a sea change in strategy could be executed successfully is a difficult question, but if double-digit margins of defeat continue, head coach Bob Huggins and his staff might have no choice but to try something different.

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