First, the Mountaineers are indeed playing a higher caliber of basketball than they were at this time a season ago. Despite Press Virginia's veteran status even then, it was the offensive aspects which caused struggles, and allowed other teams to creep back into contests. Poor decisions in transition, issues with the ability to finish from point-blank range and questionable passing created chinks in the armor that allowed for closer-than-expected games against the likes of James Madison and Richmond, among others.
Much of that has been remedied thus far this year via the offseason work, and a team with a veteran backcourt that has frankly been bludgeoned with the notion that valuing the ball would be quite the sound idea. It's combined for an average of 10.7 turnovers per game, good for the 14th-fewest in the nation on a team which is forcing foes into more than 26 per outing, tops in the nation. In theory, that in itself should lead to 15-plus additional possessions per game. And wouldn't you know it - the Mountaineers are averaging dead on the 15 more shots per game than their foes.
"I think we are getting better," WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. "I think the biggest thing is we are taking better care of the ball. We normally had a dozen turnovers against whoever we played, and we have done a much better job of that and done a much better job in transition. We were not a very good transition team last year because we didn't pass the ball. Those two areas are where we have made improvement."
West Virginia, 9-1 and ranked 11th in the latest Associated Press poll released Monday, has 195 assists this season, giving it nearly a two-to-one assist to turnover ration. The actual 1.82 numeric is the fifth-best nationally and that, paired with the 13.9 steals per game (1st in the NCAA DI) and plus-six rebounding margin - including domination on the offensive glass - has awarded the Mountaineers far better overall looks, which has led to more convertable chances, and thus the 92.6 points per game, which is also fifth-best in the country.
"We are scoring the ball better because our transition game is so much better," Huggins said. "When you think of the runs that other people went on, you can point to absolutely glaring, terrible passes, missed lay-ups, those kind of things. We are doing a better job finishing around the rim in transition and a better job scoring the ball around the rim. I think we can mismatch people a little better than what we did. I think we have more people who can score it around the goal than we did a year ago."
Where Devin Williams was the primary component of that last year, the improvements of Esa Ahmad and Nate Adrian - from passing to creating around the rim - have upgraded WVU's interior threats.Combine that with the newfound focus of Brandon Watkins and the energy brought by Elijah Macon and Sagaba Konate, and West Virginia is throwing widely varying skill sets at the issue of inside scoring. So far, against less-than-stellar play, it has worked, though the true tests outside the upset at Virginia will begin with the start of Big 12 play on Dec. 30 at Oklahoma State. That follows a pair of games against Radford on Tuesday and Northern Kentucky on Friday that wrap the end of the nonconference slate outside Texas A&M while marking the transition between the end of finals and the start of the spring semester - a time Huggins says his teams have often showed significant improvements.
"Last week was hard, because you got guys in and out and really their focus is somewhere else, as it should be," he said. "I think when finals are over with, between the time finals are over with and we start league play, we get better."
Huggins also detailed why his teams are getting whistled for fewer fouls this season, while still being able to force additional turnovers. It seems a contradictory idea in several facets, but the change has come mostly from how the game is officiated, and the resulting adjustment by players.
"I think they have done a better job of officiating the cylinder and not letting people just bang their way out of traps anymore," Huggins said. "And they have made am emphasis on calling traveling. We have all had meetings and we all had an opportunity to express likes and dislikes (with officiating). So they have heard it, and they have a bunch of people they have to please. The traveling thing has gotten out of control. They have let it go and let it go and let it go, so it will take a little time to get it back under control."