West Virginia's Zone Wilted Kansas State's Offense; Here's A Glimpse Into Why And How

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The story of West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone has been etched in Mountaineer lore after the comeback against Kansas State in the Big 12 semifinal. What, exactly, made it so devastatingly effective over the final dozen minutes?

First, and always foremost, West Virginia executed effectively for the most part. The Mountaineers were rarely out of position, staking out proper positioning within K-State's offensive sets and maintaining angles to maximize the depth and breadth of coverage in the halfcourt. It's rotations off passes were decisive, and it rarely got pulled too far out in trying to force the action.

The result was a maddeningly methodical manner in which to cut off Kansas State's penetration while also forcing the 'Cats to make quality, quick passes to open creases and provide the same driving opportunities it enjoyed against man. With the exception of a handful of possessions, K-State was never able to accomplish the task, managing just four field goals on 19 possessions once WVU went to the 1-3-1. In all, Kansas State scored 11 points over the final 12-plus minutes once the zone was deployed, and it allowed the Mountaineers to slowly climb back into the game as the offense doubled the first half output to outscore KSU 35-25 over the final period. 

"It was just trying to stop their penetration," said forward Elijah Macon, who combined with Esa Ahmad during K-State's final possession to force guard Kamau Stokes into an off-balance prayer to end the game. "I feel like the whole first half, they got to the bucket way too easy. We gave them way too many free throws the first half. It was basically to slow them down and make them shoot the perimeter shots they were shooting so we could pull back into the game."

The 1-3-1 finally enabled West Virginia to seize the lead with 20 seconds remaining on an Ahmad free throw, and K-State called timeout to setup the final offensive possession with 10 seconds left. Head coach Bob Huggins was left with the option to stay in the zone, or come out in man as a change-up. Huggins stuck with the zone, and it surprised counterpart Brice Weber, who set up a double ball screen on the play which was rendered largely ineffective by the zone. When Stokes picked up his dribble on the right wing just outside the three-point arc, Ahmad and Macon closed on the trap, and Stokes was forced into a low percentage look that bounced off the rim as the Mountaineers advanced to a second straight Big 12 Championship final.

"Not to foul, not to get them to the line, not to give them any wide open shot," Macon said of the goals on the final possession. "Me and Esa had saw that Stokes picked the ball up so we immediately went and covered him up so he couldn't get a shot off or pass to somebody. Fortunately, they couldn't get a shot off toward the end. I played that middle spot on the 1-3-1 so they couldn't penetrate. Get my hands up and everything."

West Virginia also switched out the baseline defender on the final offensive set, moving Nate Adrian down low and Jevon Carter on the offense's left wing. K-State had hit a backside lob to DJ Johnson earlier, and the Mountaineers wanted to negate or limit that option with additional height. It was the final chess move in a checkmate by Huggins. After scoring 39 points over the initial 28 minutes of play, Kansas State hit for only 11 during he final dozen-plus minutes. The Wildcats never truly adjusted to the 1-3-1 look, and rarely got the ball down into the corner to stretch the baseline defender on the backside. 

"We have gone to it in most games for a little bit," Adrian said. "This game it worked well for us and we stuck with it. Go to that 1-3-1, made them slow down a little bit, made them think a little bit.We tried to keep the ball out of their playmaker's hands down in the scoring area and keep them away from the bucket. It worked for us. Persevere through it. A win is a win."

And this one takes the Mountaineers, now 26-7, back to the Big 12 Championship title game against a hot-shooting Iowa State squad which is 22-10 overall and 5-1 in neutral court games this season. The Cyclones have won eight of nine, the lone loss coming in an 87-76 setback in Morgantown on March 3.

"That's been the process all year: Even if we get a lead on somebody, just keep grinding," Macon said. "That was what (Huggins) told us at halftime. We had a very bad first half shooting. The second half we let everything go and just kept grinding. We started zero for six, had a bad first half. Their guys were making shots. That was the flow of the game. Once everything gets going, everything was cool. 

"It's a lot of adversity, man," added Macon, who finished with 10 rebounds for a second straight game. "I actually just started crying a little bit, remembering what we have been through going through last year and getting back to this year. We have been through a lot, especially with for the guys I have been through this with. I am ready to get going and get back at it. I feel like we blew it last year (in the finals) and this is our chance to redeem ourselves."


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