Analysis: WVU-Kansas

There were multiple aspects of play in West Virginia’s victory over No. 8 Kansas that ranged from surprising to strategic as the Mountaineers at least partially soothed what ails.

First, and this is an area which No. 23 WVU has less direct control over, was that it appeared the officials allowed the teams to play a bit more than they have in the past. The reasons are multifold. First, Kansas doesn’t play the same aggressive style as does its in-state counterpart. The Jayhawks are more fluid, showcasing better talents and a finer flow to their play on both ends. That led to fewer fouls from KU itself – instead of grabbing and reaching, Kansas simply moves its feet, maintains proper angles and stays in front of opposing players.

On the flipside, Bill Self’s team excels at hitting outside shots, taking pressure away from the interior game. That in itself often leads to fewer whistles, especially with the longer rebounds, thus spacing out players more and not having as many bodies per square footage as there would be when battling in the paint. To West Virginia’s credit, it didn’t seem to reach as much as it has in some games. Nathan Adrian, even when beaten by better foot speed, simply recovered as best he could and went on with play as opposed to reaching. Jonathan Holton’s performance, arguably his top one from start to finish against top shelf Big 12 opposition, showed some of the reaching and tendency to try to wrap his arms around opposing players. But it wasn’t called quite as quickly as it had been in other games.

West Virginia, in fact, played almost six minutes before being called for a foul, that going on Adrian at the 14:09 mark of the first half. The Mountaineers had just the one foul call over the first 10 minutes of play, and with a quarter of the game gone had zero players even in remote foul trouble. That allowed for more minutes per game for players like Holton (22) and Adrian (17) than they had seen of late. Against Kansas State, WVU had already amassed seven fouls – as many as it would in the entire first half against Kansas – in the initial six-plus minutes of the game, putting the Wildcats in the bonus with 13:57 to play in the first half.

A corollary to the style-of-play angle to the fewer foul calls was that, especially over the last 11 minutes of the contest, West Virginia showed only token man pressure and quickly backed off that into a more focused half court defensive set. The Mountaineers stayed man, and would pressure to the midcourt stripe with abandon. But it didn’t attempt backcourt traps nearly as much as it had in previous games. There are a couple possible reasons for this. First, Kansas shoots it well, at a Big 12-leading 41 percent clip from three. West Virginia had been surrendering shots head coach Bob Huggins said he wanted teams to take, mainly threes from the corner. But, frankly, foes were making them a bit too often, and it was a better bet that KU would knock down more than most.

Better, Huggins likely thought, to cut down on the ability of the Jayhawks to openly drive to the rim and either finish or kick, especially with the best rim defender in Brandon Watkins out with an MCL sprain. Instead, show some base pressure, taking seconds of the shot clock, then drop into a man look while still pressuring the entire floor once the ball moved past midcourt. This also serves to cut down on the open floor for an offense to operate, thus reducing the area needed to defend, while also narrowing the passing lanes as well as cutting down the spacing to attack. WVU, it reads here, rotated within the scheme quite effectively, attempting traps and two-on-one pressure while still being able to recover. Adrian, in particular, seemed to grasp the concepts and continually had his head on a swivel , looking to find open offensive players and play the proper angle to get into the passing lanes or use his length to eliminate that option.

Huggins said after the win that he didn’t feel the Mountaineers necessarily backed off their pressure. But they certainly didn’t apply the full court set-up over the final quarter of the contest, and often backed away from it after a flurry of early success was negated by some adjustments by Self. Kansas, once getting trapped along the baseline, began to work the ball to the middle and get easier shots within the paint. That caused WVU to adjust, lessening its pressure and allowing Kansas to bring the ball up largely unmolested after the initial inbounds effort in an attempt to force worse overall shots. It seemed to work, as after four turnovers in the first five minutes led to a 10-2 deficit, and KU rallied within 21-18, West Virginia lessened pressure and the Jayhawks didn’t get as easy of a look – but also didn’t turn the ball over as much.

As for WVU with the same statistic, it had just 10 total turnovers – and an incredible three in the second half, none over the final 11:38. That might be, with proper respect for the Mountaineers’ rebounding on its offensive end, the statistic of the game. West Virginia gained numerous second chances in both halves, and really punished KU on the boards, especially in regards to guard rebounding. But ball protection and maximization of points per possession were as big of keys as any to winning with a more efficient style than that which WVU had recently showed.

The Mountaineers, while still hovering in the mid 30 percent shooting-wise, advanced to 17-0 this season when holding foes to 69 or fewer points. Kansas entered averaging 72 points per game, having been held to 61 or fewer just three times this season, two coming against No. 1 Kentucky and No. 20 Michigan State. West Virginia also went over the 300 steals mark, and his now at 307, exactly 100 from the school record of 407 set in 1997-98, and within 13 of a tie for second place with the 1991-92 team. The team leader in steals? Jevon Carter, with 48.

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