We'll start on the defensive end of the floor. Through the first three quarters of the season, West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone had been tougher to solve than a made-for-TV murder mystery. But during the past three games, the opposition has solved the mystery better than Ben Matlock, which is a big reason why the Mountaineers finished their three game road trip 1-2.
One of the big keys for the 1-3-1 is to make the offense commit to one side of the floor. In the past three games, this action has been nearly non-existent. For the zone to be most effective, the ball must be committed to one side of the floor or the other. Allowing the point guard to dribble right into the teeth of the zone – all the while staying in the middle of the floor – puts way too much pressure and responsibility on the point guard roaming the back of the zone. If he comes to help on the dribble-drive, it opens up the area under the basket for a dunk. If he stays at home, the ball handler can easily kick to either corner for a three, or a drive to the basket.
It's no secret that the 1-3-1 has been easily solved in the past three games. Seton Hall may have had an advantage over West Virginia's 1-3-1 on Tuesday night because the Pirates had the luxury of watching WVU's win over Georgetown, in which West Virginia was forced to abandon the 1-3-1 zone in large part because of the problem listed above. Seton Hall coach Louis Orr saw the Hoyas attacking the zone by staying in the middle of the floor, and no doubt worked that into his successful gameplan for Tuesday night.
If the Mountaineers want to knock off Connecticut on Saturday, they'll have to improve this facet of the zone. As good as Carl Krauser, Ashanti Cook, and Donald Copeland have been against the 1-3-1 in the last week, the Blue and Gold haven't seen an opposing point guard as talented as Marcus Williams all season, with the possible exception of UCLA's Jordan Farmar. While Farmar is more aggressive offensively than Williams, the UConn junior does an excellent job of setting up easy shots (namely dunks) for his teammates. If Williams can penetrate the zone as well on Saturday as Copeland did Tuesday, expect to see an onslaught of high-flying dunks from the main benefactor of Williams' passes and possible NBA Draft top pick Rudy Gay.
So, what should the Mountaineers do? That's a good question. They can't just scrap the 1-3-1, because it's still a very unorthodox defense that has the ability to give teams trouble. I'm not buying that the same defense that forced eight Cincinnati turnovers before the first TV timeout less than two weeks ago is all of the sudden as useless as the French Army. But something has to be done.
Again, I don't claim to be a know-it-all when it comes to the X's and O's of Dr. Naismith's game. I wasn't there when they hung the peach buckets (unlike Billy Packer) but my solution would be this: instead of automatically going into the 1-3-1 after the first made basket, stay in a man to man or even get in a 2-3 zone for a few possessions just to change it up. Then come back with the 1-3-1 later in the first half. Teams have obviously spent a bulk of their preparations for the Mountaineers on solving the 1-3-1 because it's been such a catalyst for West Virginia's success, especially early in the game. By not getting into the zone as early as usual, the Mountaineers can take their opposition out of their offensive game plan a little bit. Maybe I'm way off here, maybe I'm not. Either way it's worth a shot.
The second item I want to talk about is the lack of touches for Kevin Pittsnogle at critical times in the game. When the Mountaineers were trying to mount a comeback against the Pirates, Pittsnogle hit several big shots both inside and outside that cut the lead to four or five points. But down the stretch when West Virginia needed a bucket, there were a handful of possessions where Pittsnogle didn't even touch the ball. When you need a bucket, you have to at least look for your best player. I realize that Kevin took 17 shots on Tuesday night, which is a lot for one player in this offense. But when you make 10 of those 17, and you have one of the best shooting strokes in college basketball, you need to have the ball in crunch time. Period.
I'm not down on this team by any stretch of the imagination. Every game is tough in the Big East, especially road games. Losing two out of three on the road doesn't mean the season is over, or that this team isn't going anywhere come March. But to have any chance at beating Connecticut, West Virginia must improve it's 1-3-1 defense, and find a way to get the ball to their best player in crunch time.