SCOUTING THE OWLS
Led by a familiar face, Kennesaw State is the second Atlantic Sun foe the Mountaineers will face this season. WVU easily dispatched Stetson in the Morgantown leg of the Las Vegas Invitational, and looks to make it a clean sweep of the A-Sun. Head coach Al Skinner is in his first season at the school, which is in its 11th season of Division I play. WVU previously faced Skinner when he was the head coach at Rhode Island and Boston College. After completing his final year with the Eagles in 2009-10, he was out of college coaching for three seasons before taking an assistant coaching job at Bryant University in 2013-14. He was there for two seasons before accepting the Owls' job this spring.
Skinner took on a big rebuilding job at KSU, where five newcomers came on board to augment two returning starters. The Owls are just 2-7 so far this year, with wins over IUPUI and Florida A&M to offset a tough opening stretch. Guards Yonel Brown and Kendrick Ray are the only players averaging double figures in scoring, but neither is particularly efficient from the field. Brown (Sr., 5-9, 160 lbs.) makes fewer than 40% of his tries while averaging 18.1 points per game, but rarely comes off the court, as he plays an average of 39 minutes per game. Ray (Jr., 6-1, 180 lbs.) is a bit better at just over 40% on the way to 15.3 points per outing, and is also the team's second leading rebounder at 5.6 They are also the team's assist leaders, but are prone to turnovers. Sophmore Nick Masterson (6-5, 180 lbs.) is the third guard in the lineup, but is a limited scorer at four points per contest.
Up front, senior Nigel Pruitt and sophomore Jordan Jones man an undersized group that is at a strength disadvantage in many situations. Pruitt (6-7, 180 lbs.) gets a respectable 9.3 points and 4.4 boards per game, but Jones (6-8, 200 lbs.) is merely a placeholder as a starter. Aubrey Williams Jr., 6-6, 225 lbs.) is the best player off the bench, averaging nine points on 46.4% shooting from the field.
Overall, the Owls are simply outmanned in most regards. They don't shoot it well (38.8% as a team), are getting outrebounded by more than six per contest, and are in the negative in assist-to-turnover ratio. Skinner is a solid coach, but he likely has a very difficult season in front of him.
Call this one a “cleanup game”. As in, West Virginia (6-0) gets a chance to work on and clean up problems before facing Virginia in New York City next Tuesday. The Mountaineers' biggest problem is offensive production in the halfcourt, and there are a couple of ways in which those can be mended, or at least made less severe.
First is passing. When WVU's offense bogs down, it's usually because the ball gets stuck in one player's hands rather than moving around the perimeter to break down the defense. Dribbling in place, without a purpose of attacking a defender or a gap in the defense, is also an issue at times. This is going to be an ongoing process, but this game offers the perfect chance to work on these items without the fear of losing the game. With five fewer seconds on the shot clock this year, being efficient and getting into the offense quickly is even more important than ever.
Second is choosing spots for shots. WVU is making just 27.7% of its 3-point attempts this year, and while some of those were good shots that simply missed, a significant number have been forces that occur far too early in the shot clock. West Virginia has taken a number of these too early in the possession, with a significant number being a step or two behind the line. Better shots are available after the ball has been moved and the defense forced into react mode – those are usually “step-in” shots where the shooter catches the ball in rhythm while taking a set-up step toward the rim as part of the catch and shoot process. Those are far more accurate than shots launched over defenders, and must be worked for. WVU simply can't settle for 22-footers with 15 seconds remaining on the shot clock.
No disrespect to the Owls (RPI 313), but this is a game West Virginia (RPI 43) will cruise in. The final score is pretty much irrelevant – this is a game in which the Mountaineers need to work on correcting errors in order to prepare for the Virginia game.
Elijah Macon continues to lead WVU with a 69% shooting percentage from the field, but somewhat surprisingly Jaysean Paige, not Devin Williams, is second. Paige (60.5%) owns a slight edge over the Mountaineers' double-double machine, who is making 60.3% of his shots. That shouldn't be construed as a green light to fire away at will, but Paige has to make shots to give WVU a scoring threat off the bench. He must avoid foul trouble, which has limited him to fewer than 15 minutes per game so far this year, in order to fill that role.
Like many mid-majors, Kennesaw State opened the season with a string of road games, travelling to Alabama, LSU, Arizona State and Samford for its first four contests. However, the Owl administration quite smartly followed that up with three home games, giving Skinner's team a chance to catch its breath.
Can West Virginia be a good 3-point shooting team? In addition to the items discussed above, other evidence also seems to point toward an affirmative answer. WVU has five players shooting at least 51% from the field, and is a quite solid 72.7% from the free throw line. Everyone in the lineup displays good form on their freebies (yes, even Macon, who puts up respectable attempts with a much-improved motion) and at some point the hope is those mechanics transfer to shots from the field.