West Virginia's Defense Shows Improvement in Key Areas

CHARLESTON, W. Va. - West Virginia's press has been a thing for a while now, but WVU might be performing even better this year in its signature area of the game.

The numbers are undeniable. West Virginia is forcing almost nine more turnovers per game this year (26.5)  than it did in 2015 (17.8), and leads second place Fordham by an average of six per contest. It's sixth nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio, and is creating a turnover on 34% of its opponents' possessions. Those massive numbers have led to blowout wins and notice from the college hoops world, but it's the building blocks of those figures, not the gaudy stats themselves, that are important.

Certainly, some of these numbers have been built by the level of competition. WVU has faced a couple of teams that struggled to just get the ball to halfcourt, let alone create effective scoring chances. The Mountaineers have padded their stats tremendously against the likes of Western Carolina and Manhattan, and while they won't admit it, they know that Kansas won't turn it over 35 times, and Baylor isn't going to shoot 25% from the field. 

That's not the important thing, though -- any more than WVU's #1 scoring margin of 33.1 points per win will mean much come Big 12 time. Rather, it's the fact that the Mountaineers have improved in a couple of different areas -- defensive rotations and fouling. If the team can continue with those trends, they will be in position to play much more solid and fundamental defense throughout the year.

The reduction in fouls is the most quantifiable. Last year, West Virginia hacked its way to 23.4 fouls per game. This year, that number is 18.4. That reflects better fundamentals from the team, which is being coached hard to get its hands off opponents and increase its foot movement to play better positional D. New rules and emphasis over the past couple of seasons to eliminate two hands on a dribbler at the same time and less bumping to enhance freedom of movement were difficult for defensive-minded squads like WVU to overcome. Head coach Bob Huggins, like most defensive gurus, emphasized denying cutters a path and directing the ball away from where the offense wants it to go. That might have seemed in jeopardy with the new rules, but Huggins has figured out new ways to coach his players to get the desired results.

The second, perhaps a bit less evident, is on defensive rotations. Everyone can easily spot a breakdown when a defender fails to close out on an open shooter because he's out of position, but there has been much more to WVU's improved play than that. With Jevon Carter and Nathan Adrian spearheading the effort, West Virginia simply hasn't allowed teams a lot of good looks, especially out of set plays. Foes do still get some transition hoops and easier shots at the rim when beating the press, but Huggins is willing to trade a few of those for the turnovers and better ball pressure he is getting with his veterans. He even admitted, for the most part, that he has been pleased with the way the vets have rotated and covered on the defensive end.

Also contributing is better play at the back end of the press. Elijah Macon and Brandon Watkins have been much more aggressive in challenging long passes, and are also more intimidating at the rim when guards challenge them in transition. Again, in the rotation theme, Mountaineer frontcourt pressers have, for the most part, been very good in getting back to cover and help when the press gets broken. This didn't happen in a couple of early games, which were easy wins, but it hurt WVU greatly in its sole loss to Temple. Overall, though, it's been very good -- and remains a key to WVU's success this season.


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