When evaluating West Virginia's shooting, eyes usually first go to raw percentages – and admittedly, the numbers there tell a shaky story from the perimeter. Whether you use traditional percentages or advanced metrics, the Mountaineers show a serious flaw.
For the old schoolers, WVU is making 48.1% of their shots overall, but just 27% of their 3-point tries. Out of 351 Division I teams, the Mountaineers rank 38th in the former and 331st in the latter. Clearly, West Virginia needs to shoot the ball close to the hoop. If you prefer modern sabermetrics, WVU sports a 51.8% adjusted shooting percentage, which factors in two and three point percentages as well as free throws. That’s not good, putting Bob Huggins' team 95th nationally.
West Virginia has been able to overcome those numbers by getting more chances than opponents, due to the steals and offensive rebounding advantages it usually holds, but even those edges can't always make up the difference. There's another area, though, where WVU could make marked improvements – one that wouldn't require an ounce of increased shooting effectiveness. That lies in transition, where the Mountaineers sometimes border on horrific. WVU simply wastes far too many chances to score when it has a man or two-man advantage, and many times those aren't due to missed shots. They come from not attempting shots at all, not attacking the rim, or trying to make plays that just don't exhibit much basketball sense.
First, a quick word about transition chances and the way they are converted these days. For those with superior athleticism, a two-on-one or a three-on-two doesn't have much nuance to it. A high-flying offensive player goes to the rim, gets a lob pass and dunks it before defenders, who are retreating and often backpedaling, have a chance to gather themselves and match their opponents' jumps. For those with that ability, it's a great choice.
However, that isn't the best one for many teams. To execute it consistently, teams need forwards and guards that are quick-twitch jumpers, have good hands who can catch the ball cleanly, and who can adjust mid-flight to slightly errant passes. They also need ballhandlers who can put passes in spots where they can be handled easily: near the rim, where recipients can catch them going up on their way to the hoop. Finally, all parties have to have good timing, the ability to read defenders, and the shared decision-making to execute at the same time.
It's no shame to not have some or all of these parts, or enough of them to lob and dunk no matter who is on the floor. Many teams don't. There are different approaches that can allow them to be just as successful, but along with other basketball fundamentals, they seem to be waning. It is in a couple of these areas where West Virginia falls woefully short.
One of the first rules in transition is to get the ball to a player who can drive it effectively. By no means should the ball be passed to someone who isn't comfortable catching it and putting it on the floor. Unfortunately, WVU violates this rule with some regularity. While its bigs do a good job of filling lanes and getting involved in transition, they absolutely should not have passes thrown to them while they are 20 feet from the rim. Yet, that happens far too often, and the result is either a turnover or, at best, a lost opportunity to continue pressing the fast break to the basket. And even when they do get passes thrown to them at the proper time and place – that is, a step or two from the hoop where they can go straight up with it – the passes are sometimes very low or otherwise off-target, again leading to a bad shot or no shot at all. It's simply not fair to throw the ball to Elijah Macon or Devin Williams at the 3-point line and expect them to finish the break.
When the ball is in the correct players’ hands, WVU also often fails to attack the rim. That’s part of perhaps the cardinal rule of transition offense – force the defender make a decision. Take a simple two on one. The two offensive players should split to opposite sides of the floor so the defender can’t cover them both. The ballhandler then attacks the basket. If the defender doesn’t commit to the ball, then a lay-up should occur. If he does, then there should be a simple and easy pass to the teammate for an open shot.
This was most recently illustrated in the Virginia game, when Jevon Carter had an open path to the hoop, but chose to try to pass the ball rather than taking the shot. That resulted in a five-point swing, WVU losing the lead, and Carter being benched for the remainder of the game. By no means is he the only guilty party in these sorts of decisions, and he’s not being singled out here as the most egregious offender. It’s simply a crystal-clear example of how the Mountaineers have failed in transition.
A third area is the way in which WVU takes shots when it does go to the hoop. On several occasions this year, a player will go to the basket, but when a defender jumps with him, it’s as if the decision to shoot is irrevocable. There’s a lack of court awareness that eliminates teammates as targets for passes. Instead, Mountaineers simply flip the ball at the rim, sometimes quite wildly, in the hope that a teammate will grab the rebound or a fould will be called. And while WVU does get a lot of rebounds, that’s not the most efficient approach. Keep the head up, know where your teammates are and make the decision based on what the defender does.
All of this sounds simple, but it’s not a no-brainer. Defenders deke and fake and try to get the wrong decision from the ballhandler. High flying shot blockers can make getting the ball to the hoop tough. Still, if the right decision is made, a good shot should almost always be achieved.
What effect will that have on the Mountaineer offense? Well, look at those shooting percentages again. They are making 56% of their 2-point attempts, good for 23rd nationally. If they just get 4-5 more of those shots per game, that’s going to be the difference in a couple of contests in the league – and maybe in the NCAAs. But it all depends on making better decisions and improving court awareness.