Zone Read: WVU Unlocks Texas' 2-3 Look

Blood from a turnip. Pulling teeth. A compliment from Bob Huggins.

The comparisons are obvious, if not entirely true, and the latest example came following West Virginia’s 71-64 victory over Texas, a game in which, like the above, the Mountaineers hit the trifecta after knocking off then-No. 8 Kansas and No. 22 Oklahoma State in consecutive contests. After WVU sliced and diced the Longhorns’ 2-3 zone, Huggins was asked if the effort was the best offensive execution against such for West Virginia this season.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I ain’t got a rearview mirror, man.”

Which is bull, of course. The story about the Ohio pick-up truck driver sans the rearview mirror because he never looks back is entertaining, but it doesn’t quite jive. Huggins certainly has a rearview. He speaks fondly of past teams and players, often comparing them to the current ones in terms of execution and effort. He raves on the play and personality of Kenyon Martin and Danny Fortson and Kevin Jones and Da’Sean Butler. He talks past Final Fours, and overcoming obstacles and the single-mindedness of the purpose.

What’s the truth is that Huggins might not have wanted to say WVU’s play showed almost certainly the best execution of the season, and yet he did so in so many post game words without directly stating it. “We had 11 assists on 14 baskets in the first half,” he said. “That’s pretty good. That tells me we passed the ball. We didn’t settle. We had patience.” And moved the zone and found lanes and openings and exploited such while also being able to do something it hadn’t in past games in finishing around the rim. Devin Williams hit jump hooks and scored off head fakes. Holton surprisingly dunked off an inbounds pass as part of a 5-for-8 effort from the field to go with six offensive rebounds. Said Daxter Miles afterward: “I didn’t think he was gonna dunk it, but he’s so lengthy.”

Elijah Macon was aggressive throughout his eight minutes, though just two came in the second half. Nate Adrian added another solid defensive game, and added a dose of offense with a three from the top off the key during an early push. Adrian again clogged passing lanes and denied the ball decently, but was at times beaten, as happens with him, in foot speed. He also was inserted to guard Connor Lammert late and instead allowed an open look three, which – along with WVU’s trading offense in better ball handling and security late with Gary Browne for Adrian’s superior length on defense – got him promptly yanked from the game.

But that’s for another piece on that aspect of the game. The focus here is on West Virginia’s 17 assists on 22 baskets, its best percentage of the season. It mentally recognized and physically dismantled a zone with a frontline – in this case in the back – that went 6-8, 6-9, 6-9. And that was before Jonathan Holmes was ejected for throwing an elbow at Williams. That ushered in Myles Turner, who is 6-11. But it didn’t matter early, as the Mountaineers played with better poise, more energy and superior vision, sharing and interior scoring than it had all year against the look.

Huggins went on to say that he doesn’t think backwards, and that’s the portion that really rings true. He brings up his teams at Cincinnati and past West Virginia teams more in an effort to motivate and show examples of proper approach and play than he does in a truly reminiscent style. He’s looking to the future in speaking about the past. And in not telling his players what was perhaps quite obvious – that it was the best single half dissection of a zone this season – leaves that carrot dangling a bit for the next game, when West Virginia will again face the 2-3 at Baylor in a huge contest that could well set-up a de facto regular season title game at Kansas on March 7.

“Not too many,” Huggins said of any first-half offensive possessions against Texas with which he was unhappy. “In the second half we got too perimeter. It looked like the Pirates in spring training whistling it around the infield. You can’t do that. You gotta throw penetrating passes if you’re ever going to collapse the zone. I thought we would make more penetrating passes. But it’s not like (Texas’ Rick Barnes) can’t coach. He’s a pretty good coach. They went in at halftime and made some adjustments and we had to make some adjustments.”

Which included a 1-1-3 zone, another area will examine in its upcoming postgame coverage. The biggest initial second-half issue for West Virginia was that it indeed failed to exploit the available interior passing lanes as it had in the first half. The Mountaineers, over the first six- plus minutes of the second half, had sequences such as missed layup-turnover-foul; missed 3-pointer, foul, missed jumper, timeout; and missed 3-pointer, foul, turnover, missed 3-pointer, foul, missed jumper, foul. The latter sequence was the last before Texas pulled from down 18 points at 33-15 with 3:49 left in the first half to 40-38 with 13:36 remaining.

That’s a 23-7 run over 10 minutes when West Virginia missed 11 of 12 shots after starting 13 of their first 22 for 59 percent. After the stretch, including the 1-7 start to begin the second half, the Mountaineers hit seven of their final 16 shots, not quite the 59 percent of early on, but a solid 43.8 nonetheless. Combined with the 16 of 18 free throw effort in the second half, along with a season-best 20 of 23 for the game, and the ability of the offense, when moving the ball and finding proper floor locations, to finish was quite strong.

“We scored 28 points in the paint,” Huggins said. “Devin did a great job. He was a man. That’s a big front line he’s going against and he rebounded in traffic and he scored in traffic and he made free throws. We didn’t turn it over until the end.”

There really wasn’t any secret to it other than allowing West Virginia to play, one of the things Huggins does best. He runs a motion offense, which lacks a lot of set plays. It’s an adjustment on the fly based upon replacing other player spots on the floor to fill areas and provide options in the flow of the offense. There can be sets and plays, but that’s not the base ideals upon which it operates. It’s more free flowing, requiring recognition and reaction from each player as five attempt to operate and fire as one.

“We shot ourselves out of the first game,” Huggins said. “We wanted to get better shots than what we have gotten, so we spent Sunday working on our zone motion. It’s just principles. There’s no go here, go there, do this, do that. It’s all principles. I thought we did a really good job moving them and we took what was there for us, which is really important.”

“Chances of winning are a whole lot better if you get the first one in,” Huggins added of the punch-counterpunch of any game. “That’s been my experience.”

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