Lessons Not Learned

If West Virginia hopes to make a late push for an NCAA tournament berth, there are several play phases that have to be improved. However, there hasn't been much progress made on any of them so far this season.

Lest anyone think this is a "give up" column, let me state up front that it's not. I still have hope that the Mountaineers can win four or five more games and sneak in to one of the last at-large spots in the tournament field. However, for that to happen, West Virginia must correct, or at least improve, its play in several key areas. And the problem with that hope is that these issues have faced the Mountaineers for much of the season, and despite the best efforts of the coaches and playing staff to correct them, they remain thorns that threaten to pop WVU's tenuous NCAA bubble.

Post Defense: The disappearance of D'or Fischer as a post defender has contributed mightily to this problem, and allowed teams to shoot very high percentages against WVU as the season has progressed. Aside from the obvious problems of giving up a lot of points, the made shots have stifled West Virginia's budding transition game, and has reduced the Mountaineer attack to the half court.

The finger can't solely be pointed at Fischer, but his lack of activity and greatly reduced number of blocked shots has hurt the Mountaineers on defense. Kevin Pittsnogle's defensive obviously isn't his strong suit, and when he plays the hope is that he scores more points and causes more problems for opponents than he gives up. Sometimes that happens, but sometimes it doesn't. And when it doesn't, the Mountaineers are in trouble. Luke Bonner can help for short stretches, but he's just not ready to play 20 minutes per game yet.

Somehow, through a combination of help defense and adjustments, West Virginia must figure out a way to make it tougher for foes to score inside. I don't expect the Mountaineers to shut down Chris Taft or any of the other accomplished low post scorers in the league, but allowing them 20-25 points on 10-14 shooting puts a serious crimp in hopes of winning games.

Ball Security: While WVU is good at protecting the ball on offense, they give up far too many turnovers and lost balls on the boards and in traffic. The team as a whole simply doesn't secure the ball very well, and many times opponents are able to steal away the precious rebounds that the Mountaineers are able to snare.

The antidote for this is simple. Squeeze the ball securely with both hands, extend the elbows to create a protective frame for the ball, and pivot away from traffic. Don't put the ball on the floor, and don't lower it to your waist. And get the ball to the point guard!

All of those remedies are basic. In the heat of battle, it can be tough to execute everything you are supposed too, but these are fundamentals. Ignore them, and you're going to lose the ball. It's that simple.

Breaking the Press: Against zone presses, West Virginia rarely executes a staple of the press break – the diagonal pass. With many teams using a 2-2-1 or 2-1-2 alignment, the best way to attack those sets is to swing the ball once or twice to get the defense moving, then throw the ball diagonally to a teammate cutting into the middle of the defense. Once that pass is achieved, it's usually a simple matter to turn and find openings down the sidelines, or reverse the ball to the other side of the floor. Either of those moves will break presses of these types the majority of the time.

WVU has struggled against the press this year – even against teams that don't regularly pressure the ball. Turnovers in those situations, against those types of teams, have to be sharply curtailed.

Inbounding the ball: I admit, this one has me puzzled. The Mountaineers have burned more timeouts and had more five second calls this year than anytime in recent memory. Is it athleticism? The design of the inbounds sets? Pinpointing one cause may be difficult, but with the limited number of possessions WVU gets in a game, giving two of them away (not to mention a timeout or two) can be deadly, as it nearly was against St. John's.

With some problem areas identified, the question is, can they be corrected? Falling short of that, can improvements be made? It can be tough to overcome lifelong habits. The Mountaineer coaching staff preaches many of these concepts continually, and the players work on them in practice. However, at this point in the season, it may not be reasonable to expect huge strides in these areas. And if they continue to plague this edition of the WVU basketball team, another trip to the NIT will likely be its postseason destination.

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