Center of Attention

Earlier in the season, perimeter shooting was the focus of "what's wrong" with the Mountaineer basketball team. However, a shift in opponents' defensive tactics, along with some shaky play on the inside, has put the spotlight on another deficiency that has led to some recent losses.

In the last two games against Providence and Georgetown, WVU's opponents have fiercely defended the three point line. Although the Friars did so with an extended 2-3 zone, while the Hoyas executed it with a tight man-to-man, the result was the same. Open looks became scarce, and WVU took just 37 threes in the two games, well below its average of 26 per contest.

Before this switch, most teams seemed willing to let the Mountaineers fire away from beyond the arc. If WVU was hitting a respectable percentage, wins usually resulted. If, however, the Mountaineers were misfiring, a loss was typically chalked up. However, after WVU defeated Pitt at the Coliseum, on Feb. 5, it seems as if opponents decided not to let West Virginia dictate the outcome of the game from beyond the three point arc.

With teams now jumping out to the perimeter to shut down long shot attempts, the Mountaineers have been forced to adjust their attack a bit. In theory, with more defenders further away from the basket, WVU should have an easier time getting the ball inside to score. However, it hasn't worked out quite that way.

Against Providence, the Mountaineers missed a number of layups and short shots, turning what should have been a comfortable 10-15 point win into a nail-biter. And against Georgetown, inconsistency on the part of the center position spelled doom for WVU's hopes for a road win.

While West Virginia has gotten a few interior scores from Tyrone Sally and Joe Herber, most of the Mountaineers' inside offense has to come from the center position. Sally and Herber aren't big or quick enough to get penetration and score on a consistent basis, so WVU has to get their centers into the offense. And against the Hoyas, it just didn't happen.

The number of mistakes committed by the five spot against the Hoyas caused head coach John Beilein no end of frustration, and set up a conveyor belt of substitutions rolling to the scorer's table. It seemed as if every couple of minutes, another center was heading for the floor, which certainly did nothing to help the continuity of the Mountaineers' play. Whether it was another foul by D'or Fischer, a missed assignment by Luke Bonner or a defensive lapse by Kevin Pittsnogle, WVU's play at the five position contributed to the inside woes that allowed the Hoyas to sneak away with a game they probably shouldn't have won.

On the defensive end, only Fischer seemed able to handle the Hoya inside duo of Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green, but as has been the case recently, the 6-11 senior hasn't been able to stay out of foul trouble. Pittsnogle and Bonner battled as well as they could, but were outmanned against the Georgetown pair. Pittsnogle again acquitted himself well on the offensive end, but couldn't seem to secure the ball on several occasions, and failed to take advantage of some one-on-one situations in the paint.

To their credit, the Mountaineers don't point fingers in public, and take their share of blame on their shoulders. Pittsnogle noted that all the mistakes and the shuttle service of substitutions caused a distinct lack of rhythm, but admitted that it had to happen due to the great number of mistakes that were made during the game. Herber refused to find fault with the center position, noting that WVU plays enough with each center in practice to be familiar with what they do while they are in the game. However, it was obvious for all to see that the WVU inside game, never a strength to begin with, was one of the major problems on the afternoon.

The fact remains that the game has changed for WVU this month. Teams aren't going to take the chance of West Virginia hitting 10 or 12 three-pointers in a game, because they know this Mountaineer squad is capable of doing so. So, opponents are going to defend outside and take their chances with one-on-one matchups closer to the basket. And until WVU proves they can take the ball inside and score, those same tactics are going to be in evidence in every contest.

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