Adjustments and Countermoves

Head coach John Beilein is gaining a reputation as a master strategist, one who constant tweaks his offensive and defensive alignments to give his team the best chance to win. In Wednesday night's Pitt game, however, it was a reaction move by Panther head coach Jamie Dixon that gave the Mountaineers a big advantage as they rallied to sweep the basketball Backyard Brawls.

Many of the changes Beilein makes to his offenses and defenses are subtle, and not readily apparent to many observers. On offense, the Mountaineers might change the way a player comes off a screen or the path which a cutter takes on a particular play. Defensively, WVU might have the point player of the 1-3-1 pick up a ballhandler at half court, or might shade a wing defender toward a particular offensive player. There are many such changes from week to week, and Beilein's adroit handling of them has helped the Mountaineers 10 17 wins so far this season.

While the WVU staff has certainly earned their stripes in this respect, sometimes the key move or adjustment in a game comes about in a different manner. That was certainly the case in WVU's win over the Panthers in Pittsburgh earlier this week, and it was all due to the fire ignited by West Virginia center Kevin Pittsnogle.

Through the first 30 minutes of the game, Pittsnogle couldn't get anything going. He admittedly rushed a few shots, and wasn't as aggressive on the boards as Beilein would like. As a result, the Martinsburg product had only registered five points, and had spent a decent amount of time on the Mountaineer bench. Pittsnogle's lack of productivity also allowed Dixon to keep sophomore center Chris Taft in the game for long stretches. Taft, who is not a stellar defender, thus dominated the boards and added ten points to put the Panthers comfortably in front.

All that changed, however, when Pittsnogle lit up like a roman candle. His shot suddenly started finding the mark, evoking memories of his barrage 18 days earlier that sparked another West Virginia win, and the Panthers panicked. Rather than sticking with their game plan of pounding the Mountaineers inside, Dixon decided that he had to do something to slow down the rampaging junior. So, he removed Taft from the game and replaced him with the shorter, but supposedly more mobile, Levon Kendall.

As a strategic move, this one ranked right up there with Germany's decision to invade Russia in World War II. Kendall, while perhaps being quick enough to stay with the 6-11 Pittsnogle, certainly wasn't tall enough to impede his looks at the basket, even when he was in front of him. Pittsnogle fired at least two arcing rainbows over Kendall that found nothing but net, and those daggers fueled both a WVU scoring outburst (46 points in the second half) and the attendant loss of spirit from the Panther squad.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the absence of Taft totally changed the Panther attack. Without that physical presence in the lane, Pitt didn't have nearly the success on the offensive boards they had enjoyed for much of the contest. With the Panthers shooting just over 42% for the game (as opposed to WVU's 50% mark), Pitt needed the rebounds and offensive stickbacks that Taft provided.

When Pittsnogle started lighting up the nets, Dixon could just as easily, and in fact should have, run through this thought process. ‘Pittsnogle is on fire, and I don't have anyone on my roster that can cover him. Center Aaron Gray is too slow, Taft isn't closing out, and none of my other defenders are big enough. So, I'm just going to ride it out and leave the players out there that have produced on the offensive end.' Had he done so, it's safe to assume that Taft would have rebounded at least a few of Pitt's many misses over the last ten minutes of the game. And had he added just four points to his scoring total over that time, the game could have wound up with a different outcome.

Fortunately for WVU, those thoughts didn't run through Dixon's circuitry. He chose to go with a smaller, more active lineup, and although the reasoning behind it seemed sound, in practice it failed miserably. Pitt's strategy of going with a smaller lineup to defend WVU at the three point line didn't work because none of the Panthers on the floor were tall enough to bother him, and also because they didn't deny him the ball. It also totally crippled the Pitt offensive attack, as the Panthers, not the best of outside shooting teams, were forced to conduct most of their offensive assaults from the perimeter.

Often, coaches get criticized for not making moves or adjustments during games. Sometimes, however, not making a move turns out to be the best move of all. Had Pitt left Taft on the floor, WVU's NCAA bubble might have burst on Wednesday evening. Instead, the Mountaineers made it bigger and bouncier than ever.

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