Kevin Kinder \

What's the Key Element in WVU Hoops Play?

West Virginia might be playing even better basketball this season that it did last year. What has been the key factor in the Mountaineers' run to what could be a top ten ranking this week?

Several items have come into play to help  West Virginia's early march to prominence this year. Some expected, some not, but all in play as prime movers in WVU's 12-1 record to date.

1) Passing, especially in transition

WVU has been taking care of the ball better, and nowhere does it show up more clearly than in transition. Last year, it was hit or miss as to whether WVU would score in three-on-two or two-on-one situations. Passes would be thrown at the feet of big men, or poor pass vs. shoot decisions would be made. This year, the difference is night and day. WVU rarely throws the ball to a sprinting big man 15 feet from the hoop. It keeps its passes up where they are easier to catch, and is making much better decisions on when to attack on the dribble, draw a defender and drop it off to a teammate.  This, along with a another improvement we'll get to in a moment, is one of the prime reasons the Mountaineers are averaging 91.8 points per game this year as opposed to 78.5 a season ago. Sure, opposition has something to do with that, but the Mountaineers played their share of subpar foes in 2015-16, and topped 100 points three times. It's already hit the century mark four times this season, and has been plus-90 in four others.

The passing extends to the halfcourt as well. WVU hasn't been perfect here, and still tends to dribble the ball too much and try to create one-on-one from the guard positions at times, but overall it moves it better. It isn't focused on getting the ball inside to one player or reliant on another to score, so passes aren't usually forced. The ball is being moved according to the tenets of the offense, whether a set play or within the framework of motion, and the results can be seen across the board.

2) Better shooting

Some of this stems directly from item one: good passes lead to better shots, which are easier to make. However, that doesn't account for all of the improvements in shooting. WVU shot 44.9% from the field a year ago - this year it's at 49%. Three-point shooting is also up from 32.5% to 36.9%. Add in the sheer number of shots that the Mountaineers get -- their advantage is at 196 to date -- and it's again fairly simple to see the benefits. West Virginia is getting more good shots this year, and hasn't had to resort to a high ball screen with the clock running down on nearly as many occasions this season.

It's also evident on an individual basis. Six Mountaineer returnees from a year ago are shooting appreciably better from the field so far, and while some of those percentages might dip a bit as competition toughens, it's still very likely that all will finish the campaign with much better shooting numbers than they posted a year ago.

The only place this isn't showing up is at the free throw line, where West Virginia's percentage has dipped from 67.3% to 65.2%. 

3) Fewer fouls

This one came from out of the blue. The NCAA has continued to emphasize restriction on physical play, and that didn't bode well for any massive reduction in fouls for WVU. However, the Mountaineers are averaging just 19.7 fouls per game this year, as opposed to 23.5 last year. Again, game flow may have helped West Virginia in this area some, and there's no way to tell how officials will call league games that figure to be much more hotly contested. (We can expect at least a few foul fests.) Again, though, WVU improvements are evident. There are far fewer fouls in the backcourt, and those of the automatic variety, such as when a defender puts both hands on a dribbler or uses a knee or leg to try to trap or contain opponents, are also down. 

The results here? WVU hasn't had to sit many players due to foul trouble and opponent free throw attempts are down, making it much more difficult to score.

4) Better defense at the rim

West Virginia lost a lot when Devin Williams left for a pro career, but one area where it has improved is in defense at the rim, and at the back end of the press.. Brandon Watkins and Elijah Macon are much better at coming out and pressuring the ball, and have made better reads in going for long passes and helping shut down over the top attempts to break the press. Sagaba Konate has become an immediate shot-blocking threat, and while he's not as polished yet in other defensive areas, he already has more rejections this year (20) than anyone did in the entire 2015-16 season. Likewise, Watkins and Macon have combined for more steals through 13 games than they did all of last year. This is an underappreciated part of WVU's improvement this year, but one that might play bigger dividends through conference play.

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