To illustrate, it would be helpful to pull out a game tape from the Oklahoma or Villanova games and watch the way in which West Virginia's defenders played the 1-3-1. Against those schools (as well as most others in the first half of the season), WVU was very active at the point and on the wings. Mike Gansey flew into passing lanes and contested passes like the Tasmanian Devil, while Joe Herber, Frank Young and Patrick Beilein deflected more passes than Cindy Crawford on singles night. When the Mountaineers weren't stealing the ball outright, they disrupted opposing offenses, forced them to move the ball away from the basket, and generally created a great deal of havoc and unrest on the perimeter.
Fast forward to the recent three-game swing, and almost none of that is evident. While WVU did get a couple of steals and layups against Georgetown (which proved to be the difference in the game), they generated next to no offense from their defense against Seton Hall. Even worse, the Pirates were able to dribble down the lane and attack the interior of the 1-3-1 with next to no interference from West Virginia's outside defense, leading to easy post ups and short shots in the lane. Seton Hall, a mediocre shooting and ball-handling club, were able to eliminate those problems from its offense precisely because West Virginia was unable to put any pressure on those areas of its game.
Don't get the idea, however, that the Mountaineers have stopped trying, or aren't expending every bit of energy they have on defense. That's simply not in the character of this team. The problem, clearly, is one of physical weariness, no matter how much Beilein wants to downplay the issue.
A look at the body language and on-court play of several Mountaineers clearly displays this. Jumping-jack Gansey isn't getting nearly as high off the ground when he leaps as he did earlier in the season, and it's not because he's just forgotten how to do it. However, his lack of bounce and quickness shows up when he's on the point of the 1-3-1, because he's not affecting nearly as many passes as he used to. He's also unable to stay with many guards on drives, and as a result opposing points are getting the ball to the foul line on the dribble and attacking the middle of West Virginia's defense. Just about any defensive scheme will break down in you get the ball unopposed in the middle of the floor against it, and that is what has been happening recently to WVU.
In no way, however, should the finger of blame be pointed at Gansey alone. The wings of the 1-3-1 have been slow to respond to ball movement, and thus passes that were formerly tipped or closed down are now finding open shooters or cutters into the lane. Herber and Beilein, whose windmilling defensive styles caused lots of consternation, aren't nearly as active. The same is true along the baseline, where drives that were formerly cut off by J.D. Collins and wings dropping from the outside are now yielding good shots for opponents close to the basket. The Mountaineers are trying to get to the right spots, but those efforts seem to be taking a bit longer than they did a couple of months ago. And with the level of competition in the Big East, a split second is all it takes to define the margin between victory and defeat.
"Finger of blame" is probably not the best phrase I could have used in the preceding paragraph, because I'm not blaming anyone on WVU's team for the two recent losses. If the Mountaineers weren't giving their best effort, I'd be upset, but that's not the case here at all. I simply believe that, even more so than the late January stretch, this West Virginia team is physically beaten down.
Need more evidence? Here are a couple other things to watch for if you've pulled out those game tapes, or to keep an eye on in Saturday's clash with Connecticut. How many loose balls are the Mountaineers recovering, and how many times do you see a WVU player hitting the deck to battle for one? West Virginia has simply seemed to be a step slow in many of these situations over the past couple of weeks, and although some of them can be attributed to "the bounce of the ball" in Beilein's parlance, some are simply because WVU hasn't reacted quickly enough to make a play on them.
The second, also on the defensive end, is taking charges. How many charging fouls have the Mountaineers caused in the last three games? Kevin Pittsnogle had a big one at the end of the first half against Georgetown, but other than that, there haven't been many. Again, WVU hasn't forgotten how to do it, or grown shy of contact. It simply seems that the Mountaineers haven't been quite as quick in getting into defensive position recently, and as a result paths that were formerly blocked are now open lanes to the hoop.
The tired legs certainly take their toll on the offensive end as well. A quick comparison of missed shots would likely reveal that the Mountaineers are coming up short on their three-point tries far more frequently than they did earlier in the year, and that's an obvious sign of fatigue. Another is the number of missed layups West Virginia has suffered recently, as a number of shots have been guided toward the hoop rather than take aggressively up and at the rim.
Hopefully, that's enough evidence for all to see that West Virginia's recent losses are as much attributable to fatigue than anything else. The Mountaineers haven't suddenly forgotten how to execute their schemes. They are simply not doing so with the same crispness and energy that they did earlier in the year.
Those still looking to find fault are also taking the coaching staff to task. Why, this group asks, hasn't Beilein and company played more people in order to give his first seven more rest? The answer is simple, but one that is ultimately unsatisfying to many. The fact is that players such as Rob Summers, Joe Alexander and Alex Ruoff simply aren't ready to play more than they are at this point. Beilein and his coaches see these players every day in practice. They understand what each player is capable of and ready to handle, and in their judgment this group isn't prepared for more than spot duty yet. Part of the reason for this, of course, is West Virginia's intricate offensive scheme. All five players must be in sync, make the same reads, and adjust on the run in order to make Beilein's system work. In many offenses, a player that doesn't know what he's doing can get out of the way and not affect things. That's rarely, if ever, true in Beilein's system, where all five units must execute their assignments. If they don't, the system breaks down. Thus, in the end analysis, it's probably better to have a player on the floor that's tired but knows what to do rather than a fresh one that might blow up the play.
Is there a solution here? There certainly aren't any magic formulas, but perhaps the schedule might finally be ready to cut WVU a break. The Mountaineers had three days to prepare for UConn, and then after another quick turnaround for a Monday road trip at Syracuse, have two more games at home following a four day break, then another four days off before the season-ender at Cincinnati. If, and it's a big if, West Virginia can regain its verve a bit during this stretch, the Mountaineers will be just as difficult to beat at Madison Square Garden as they were a year ago. If the bounce isn't back, however, it could be a quick exit from the big stage.