Sure, West Virginia missed the senior forward, the team leader in deflections and steals who creates massive havoc within the press. But this was bigger than simply being without the player that might well glue the entire approach together. The Mountaineers, across the entire team, failed to close out on Florida's shooters, and were poor enough in man defense that the Gators had plentiful driving or passing lanes. That, in turn, led to the ability to penetrate and kick, or to simply reverse the ball to an open shooter.
The results were fruitful, Florida doing its part by shooting 53 percent, including a sizzling 60 percent from three-point range. UF finished with 12 threes in just 20 attempts in nearly doubling its average three-point rate of 31.8 percent.
As bad as WVU's halfcourt defense was, the transition out of the press was arguably worse. Florida had players continually running in open space towards the bucket, forcing West Virginia's outnumbered defenders to either choose an opposing player, leaving another open, or try to mitigate the interior threat, leaving a trailer open for a three. The Mountaineers were never able to consistently transition from the press, which Florida handled with relative ease, into the defense and then at least marginally execute in the man set.
The Mountaineers, in looking as ragged on defense as anytime since the second half of the Virginia game, forced 14 turnovers while again committing more than its opponent with 18. Over the last four games, WVU has forced 58 turnovers, and committed 63 themselves. In fact, in this game, Florida managed a 21-14 edge in points off turnovers.
Head coach Bob Huggins said he counted five times in the game that the Mountaineers had a major numbers advantage in transition and turned the ball over. And then he hit on a key point.
"I've been telling them that we can't turn the ball over," he said, "but I've been telling them that since the Bahamas."
The worry is that this is no longer an outlier result. This could well be the new norm, especially against an excellent ball-handling team like Iowa State. The Cyclones are unlikely to turn the ball over, and Baylor was among the more successful teams in handling West Virginia's press last season. What that means over the next two games, both of which Holton is expected to miss, is that the Mountaineers could well begin to slide down the Big 12 rankings, leaving any thoughts of a league title by the wayside.
Florida's athleticism was another issue. West Virginia has largely been able to match athletes with most foes. But the Gators, whose best offense is when they get out and run, simply ran the Mountaineers out of the proverbial building. UF attacked the bucket, driving past guards on the perimeter or freeing forwards inside for easy lay-ins and a handful of dunks. There seemed little more than token resisitance from WVU's guards, as UF's Kevaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza easily created opportunities off the bounce. Their statistical lines were solid, Allen with 19 points -and that wasn't even the most for the Gators - with nine coming from getting to the line. Chiozza netted 10, with six assists, but also turned the ball over half a dozen times.
The player who really benefited from West Virginia's defensive issues was Dorian Finney-Smith. The forward destroyed the halfcourt sets with an impressive display of sharpshooting, hitting 5-of-7 threes and seven of 12 shots overall for a game-high 24 points. The majority of those came on step in shots, and it really wasn't all that different than shooting in warm-ups. Guards penetrate, defense collapses to help, ball kicks back for a wide open look. If the defensive help didn't come, Allen and Chiozza hit lay-ins, or were able to draw help on the inside, dumping to players on the blocks for easy points in the paint.
West Virginia's press? It was never all that bothersome, and likely hurt in some aspects, as it sped Florida up. That was fine until the transitions into man became poor, which left the Gators with enough space and open lanes to take very high quality shots. It led to so many makes that Florida didn't have to worry as much about second-chance points for West Virginia, and were able to keep the rebounding margin at 32-30 in favor of the Mountaineers.
It all added to an ugly defeat on the road, and one that might well have happened even if Holton had played. As such, WVU remains the only Big 12 team without a win in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. The Mountaineers are now 0-3, with defeats to Missouri, LSU and Florida.
The loss won't destroy the RPI, and it won't affect the Big 12 standings. But it creates some worry about West Virginia's ability to protect the ball and be able to pass effectively enough to create solid chances, especially going forward with the next three games coming against ranked foes, with two on the road. After that? Three ranked teams over the last seven to finish, and that doesn't include a trip to Texas against a Longhorns team that already upset the Mountaineers.
That's six games against ranked teams over its last 10 in the toughest league in the nation. Where West Virginia can finish against such competition? That's to be determined.