Despite those undeniable facts, however, that's not the biggest reason for West Virginia's rocky start. Even with Fischer, the Mountaineers struggled to rebound and defend in the paint in 2004-05. The Mountaineers gave up tons of points in close, and rarely outrebounded their foes. However, they were able to make those deficiencies up in other areas, including two key metrics that are the focus here.
The first way in which the Mountaineers offset foes' interior scoring advantages was by limiting turnovers and creating more opportunities for themselves via steals. WVU has again done that this year, which has helped make up for its huge negative rebounding margin. For example, against LSU, West Virginia committed just seven turnovers, against 22 for the Tigers. That's 15 extra chances for WVU, which helped negate the –22 rebounding deficit LSU piled up on the home team. LSU scored 30 second chance points against the Mountaineers on the strength of 20 offensive rebounds, but WVU responded with 26 points off turnovers – which nearly wiped out that deficit.
While West Virginia has been able to continue its solid play in that area this year, the second factor has been AWOL. That's the ability to drive to the basket and score – the specialty of wiry Tyrone Sally, who took his acrobatic moves around the hoop with him when he departed. To date, WVU hasn't been able to find anyone to fill in that area, and as a result the Mountaineers have been even more inextricably tied to the three-pointer. And if they aren't hitting at least 37-38% from downtown, wins are going to be hard to come by.
Understand that WVU isn't just passing the ball around out front and taking the first three-point shot available. West Virginia is still driving the ball to the basket, but it seems as if the kickout pass is the first priority, rather than taking the ball strong to the rim. Of course, head coach John Beilein doesn't want his teams forcing up shots against double coverage in the lane when a good shooter is unguarded on the perimeter, but at the same time, the Mountaineers can't ignore inside opportunities either. Against the Tigers, WVU seemed very tentative in looking for shots off penetration.
"I think we went in a few times thinking about getting our shots blocked," Patrick Beilein said after the LSU game. "They have guys that are so long down there that we had that mentality, but we can't have that. We have to go in there and not worry about it."
Jack-of-all trades Joe Herber agreed, at least in part, with Beilein's assessment.
"I don't know," sighed the versatile senior when asked if WVU was tentative in going to the rack. "We didn't have a lot of aggressiveness [going to the basket]. We need more. They have a lot of big guys. I think if we see a gap we have to drive it. We have to get better at finishing. We missed some easy ones."
Herber and Beilein are trying to fill in the gap left by Sally by driving the ball to the basket more, but that skill is admittedly not their forte. However, Beilein notes it's not as if they can't get the job done.
"It doesn't take us out of our comfort zone," said Beilein of putting the ball on the floor. "We've been working on it a lot. We just have to keep working on it in practice, and it will come."
Of course, just driving it inside is not the answer, as WVU found against LSU. The Mountaineers have to take the ball up strong to the hoop when the opportunity is there. Even if the shots don't go, aggressive drives can result in fouls on the defense, which has all sorts of positive effects for the offense. Against the Tigers, West Virginia shied away from challenging the LSU defenders, and as a result didn't get into the bonus until three seconds remained in overtime.
"That was big," Herber admitted. "You have to get it inside and put pressure on their big men, and we didn't do that all night."
Even Mike Gansey, he of the acrobatic drives, agreed that WVU didn't push the ball hard enough against the LSU defense.
"They had some great athletes and shot blockers. We were driving to kick it, and in a way they played us a little bit so that we had to pass it," Gansey explained. "We were trying to make something happen, because if you just sit out there and shoot threes you can get in trouble. We need to drive it a little more than we did."
Gansey's point is valid, as LSU's defensive strategy was to not get beaten with backdoor cuts and to provide help on all penetration. That meant less room for WVU inside, and led to more kickout passes to outside shooters. However, there were still times that West Virginia passed up chances to get to the basket for shots.
"I thought we had a couple times we had some layups that [we passed up]," John Beilein said. "But they are big and long, and only have one guy that's not 6-7, and its tough to get in there. But the times we did get in there we have to go up and finish, and we didn't do that."
Granted, LSU's defense was designed to contain penetration and force the Mountaineers to win the game outside, but West Virginia's imbalance in shot selection (45 three-pointers against 24 from inside the arc) speaks volumes as to their ability, or willingness, to go inside. That part of the game, which has been mostly missing since Sally's departure, must be found if WVU is to compete at the top level of the Big East.
Fortunately, a major overhaul isn't needed. It wasn't like Sally was scoring 30 points per game on his drives to the hoop. West Virginia simply needs to get a couple of drives and scores per game from two or three different players to make up for much of that loss. The question is, from where?
It's fairly obvious at this point that Frank Young isn't comfortable yet in driving the ball to the basket. That's not a knock – it's simply not one of his strengths. Herber and Beilein, despite being good passers, must look for scoring opportunities first when they put the ball on the floor. And perhaps most importantly, Darris Nichols, who has all the tools (ballhandling skills, speed and jumping ability) to get to the rim, must break out of his subpar play to date.
Nichols can no longer play like a freshman deferring to upperclassmen. He has to make plays when he's on the floor, rather than serve as a caretaker as he did early in his first season, and a big part of that should be penetrating and looking to score. Against LSU, Nichols had one assist, one foul and one turnover in 13 minutes of action. The rest of his line score was straight zeroes – results that the Mountaineers can't have from the seventh man in the rotation.
It's not time to panic, however. The season is still very much in its early stages, and the Mountaineers have four games coming up in which to repair this problem area. No major overhaul is needed -- John Beilein simply needs to make his players think "score first" when they go the basket.