West Virginia's Backcourt Primary Component Of Success Versus Kansas - And Moving Forward

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Among the myriad of keys to West Virginia's win against Kansas - and for the season as a whole moving forward - never showed on the box score.

The Mountaineers, nearly to a man, were able to force the Jayhawks into contested shots and didn't give up the vast numbers of easy interior looks as they had in the previous three games. The secret doesn't reveal itself in the statistical lines, which show that KU's trio of backcourt starters in Frank Mason, Devonte Graham and Josh Jackson combined for 54 points - an average of 18 points per player and more than 78 percent of the team's total. The stats also show the three hit 19-of-38 shots from the floor, dead on the 50 percent mark, while knocking down 10 of KU's 13 three-pointers. 

So why would one gather that WVU's backcourt performed exactly as desired in a fourth straight home win over the Big 12's premier program? Because unlike in the games against Kansas State and Oklahoma, West Virginia not only didn't turn the ball over, finishing with just eight, but was also able to stay in front of KU's guards and force them off the straight line drives that have completely disabled the defense in recent defeats. The two points, like much else within any sport, work hand-in-hand. 

The lack of turnovers - especially those of the live ball variety - gave the Jayhawks far fewer opportunities in the open court, where they thrive as among the best transition teams in the nation. Mason's handling and floor vision, along with Jackson's explosion and athleticism and the length of Graham, make slowing Kansas a nightmare even with balanced numbers. It's what allows head coach Bill Self's teams to win at an elite level while shooting poorly from the free throw line and lacking the pure physicality at center or power forward that Kansas has had in recent seasons. West Virginia avoided the pitfalls of fast break points by valuing possessions, taking care of the ball and getting solid looks which didn't lead to longer rebounds and easier run outs for the opposition. 

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"I'm going to have to give credit to our guards this game," forward Elijah Macon said. "They did a better job guarding the ball this game. We were supposed to keep (Center Landen) Lucas out of the paint, keep him from scoring the ball and then hurry up and get back because they like to outlet it fast."

Which leads to the second component of slowing Kansas in eliminating the drives. The guards for both Oklahoma and K-State simply applied the Calculus of Variations in figuring the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And because there was no resistance from an opposing force, Archimedes' law was utilized again and again by OU and KSU in upsetting the Mountaineers by a combined six points. OU managed multiple straight line drives, including the final one of the game by Jordan Woodard that provided the difference in the 89-87 overtime loss. Kansas State used the same on run outs, capitalizing on WVU turnovers in the halfcourt to transition quickly into offense and attack the bucket head on.

But Kansas, despite having superior talent to OU and KSU, and showcasing far more efficient guard play, was continually cut off from the straight line, being forced to drive the ball at angles or simply dribble back away from the inside to take mid-range jumpers or threes. That aided West Virginia in two ways. First, it created lower percentage shots for KU, which still hit a solid 13-of-29 from three for 44.8 percent. Making the Jayhawks earn the points from longer range also created more rebounds that bounced farther from the bucket, which in turn allowed the Mountaineers to get out in transition easier and create higher percentage opportunities for themselves. Stopping the straight drive also decreased the need for help side defense, which in turn lessened the need for rotations, which in turn kept WVU's players in sound defensive positions on the floor.

If that reads like a domino effect - we wrote about this here following the Kansas State game as well - that's because it is. If West Virginia can halt drives, it manages to stop many other things, including turning opposing players loose at the rim for everything from easy scores to putbacks off offensive rebounding.

"They are very good guards and I have to give them credit," Tarik Phillip said of Kansas. "But we just have to do out best to make them take tough shots through us instead of giving them straight lines to the basket where they can make plays and have our big men in difficult position. It's keeping them in front of us and trying to make them score through us. We were telling each other in the huddle, 'Stay locked in, stay locked in.' Because we knew this happened before in the Oklahoma game and previous games before where we have built up leads. We have to stay locked in at all times."

West Virginia did, and it managed to finish off second top five foe this season in becoming the first team since Indiana in 2011-12 to defeat the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the same season. That, to this point, has largely balanced the losses to Texas Tech and, most shockingly because it came at home, Oklahoma. But WVU can ill afford more sub par defeats if it's going to challenge for a top three or four seed in the NCAA Tournament. To do that, it has to continue to bring the energy and effort it has against Kansas and Baylor, among others. If tat happens, the execution aspect will fall into place more often than not for the Mountaineers.

"It's a tough league," Phillip said. "As you know, we've already lost to the bottom teams in the conference, so we just have to come ready to play every game no matter who we play, no matter if it's a top five team, top 10 team. Every time we are in practice, we feel like we are going to win the game. Then we get on the floor and we have mental lapses that cause teams to go on runs and beat us. I don't have an answer for that, really. But we have to come ready to play no matter who it is."

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