West Virginia got road wins over Kansas State and TCU to open the big 12 basketball season, but in both games the Mountaineers were forced to abandon its press for large chunks of the game. To get right to the point, is this the beginning of the end for Press Virginia?
To be equally quick with the answer -- after all, this is the Internet -- no. WVU will continue to press, and it will be effective in future games. Two very different factors contributed to West Virginia moving behind the halfcourt line in its two most recent games. One of them is almost totally in WVU's control to fix, while the other can be adjusted for. It's not going to be easy, but it can be done.
Kansas State dictated its terms against West Virginia, and deserved the credit for breaking the press and forcing the Mountaineers to drop into a 1-3-1 zone. The Wildcats kept the ball in the middle of the floor, passed it quickly, and didn't throw it backwards. It angled it up the floor continually, and although it did get caught in a few traps, it scored enough easy hoops to make WVU change tactics. Bob Huggins' response won the game, as the zone flummoxed the Wildcats, but it also pointed out that the West Virginia press isn't invincible.
One game doesn't make a season of course, so there wasn't great concern as the Mountaineers moved on to Fort Worth. Facing a TCU team that isn't great in taking care of the ball, it looked as if WVU was ready to get back on track. However, after a couple of early giveaways, the Horned Frogs began attacking the press deep. Looking for all the world like the Mountaineer football team tossing the ball downfield against Arizona State, TCU got several transition looks that resulted in lay-ups or fouls as it threw it over the WVU press. That wasn't the biggest determinant, though. WVU began fouling as if it was trailing by ten points with two minutes to go, and piled up staggering numbers in that department. Eventually, Huggins had to drop out of the pressure, and this time he went to the point drop version of the 2-3 zone, mostly in order to protect his team from more fouls. It helped slightly, as the Mountaineers decreased their infractions to 12 in the second half after committing 21 in the first, but it also allowed TCU to advance the ball without pressure in the backcourt.
"We turned it over 22 times. We aren't skilled enough or good enough to do that." -WVU Head Coach Bob Huggins
Even with these back-to-back games, West Virginia can still press, and press effectively. It will have to coach those in ball denial to be aware of the deep throw, and it may have to employ more zone press to allow one big man to stay back more often. The problem there is that other than Brandon Watkins, West Virginia doesn't have an effective rim defender to play in the back, so it might not totally deter that tactic. West Virginia can also modify where and how it traps, and play the inbounds pass differently -- all moves that can be used to combat what Kansas State and TCU did effectively against the press. The one thing the Mountaineer coaching staff can't do, though is force WVU's players to stop reaching and putting two hands on dribblers, which are called automatically. That will be the tougher change to implement, as the lesson hasn't seemed to have sunk in yet.
WVU can also cut down on its own turnovers, which would keep the press in play more. If WVU cuts its turnovers by 4-5 per game, that would be five fewer shots for opposing teams, and at least five (and usually seven or eight, given offensive rebounds) for the Mountaineers. That would have turned the TCU game into more of a cruise than the dogfight it became, and, as we often note, make the difference in tight league games that often come down to one or two possessions.
Faced with its press and foul problems (21 in the first half, 33 overall) the Mountaineers picked a great time to come up with their best shooting game of the season against TCU. They hit 57.7% of their field goals (30-52) including a very accurate 9-17 mark from 3-point distance. That helped offset TCU's scorching 35-40 showing from the free throw line.
"I've told them we can shoot the ball well," Huggins said of the performance from the floor. The scoring parade was again keyed by Jaysean Paige (6-8) and Tarik Phillip (5-8) who shone in their usual roles, which have become backup in name only. Both were 2-2 from behind the arc and 6-8 from the free throw line, with only a single shot separating Paige's 20 points form Phillip's 18. Huggins singled out Phillip's game as a key.
"I thought Tarik was terrific. He just wills us to wins."