A press, of course, isn't a rarity, but the Demons do use several different versions of it to confuse foes. At times, they will run it end-to-end, doubleteam the ball on the inbounds pass and trap aggressively, while at other junctures they will play it in a three-quarter court look while jumping in the passing lanes. They used both versions to good effect against Iowa, and turned the Hawkeyes' offense into a disconnected mess down the stretch.
West Virginia, with its structured game, will have to emphasize patience and good decision making to keep the game from spiraling into an up and down affair. It's a classic matchup of widely divergent styles that should be quite entertaining to watch.
"Northwestern State likes to run and jump and create turnovers instead ofplaying halfcourt defense. They like to get it up and down and create tempo," West Virginia point guard J.D. Collins analyzed. "I have to make sure I don't dribble into traps, and be smart when I'm making passes, because they are a long team. But I do have to be aggressive when I'm attacking, and as long as I do that, I can help get other guys open and give them some space."
As Collins notes, WVU must have a balanced approach to defeating Northwestern State's press. They have to avoid traps, but can't be so tentative that it makes it easy for the Demons to get into doubleteams. To that end, the Mountaineers will likely try to keep the ball in the middle of the court and get the ball over the Demons' first line of defense, and hopefully set up some two on one or three on two situations.
The second means the 14th seeded Demons use to create problems is its ten-man rotation. Northwestern State has ten players averaging at least 13 minutes per game, and occasionally substitutes an entire new five player platoon during games. It's an approach that Northwestern State head coach Mike McConathy developed long ago to compete with more talented teams.
"I've been doing that since I was coaching in junior college," said McConathy, who, much like John Beilein, developed a unique system to make his squads more difficult to prepare for. "It allowed us to stay competitive with other schools, and it also allows us to keep our intensity level up throughout the game."
In that way, the two outstanding characterisitics of Northwestern State are entwined. The Demons likely couldn't apply their frentic press for long stretches without the depth they employ, but with fresh legs constantly coming into play, they are able to keep relentless pressure on opponents. The deep rotation also helps keep everyone on the team involved, because there's nothing like playing time to keep individuals happy.
Another problem posed by Northwestern State's rotation is one of matchups, and in some cases, simply keeping up with who is on the floor. Much of West Virginia's scouting report is focused on opposing players, and their strengths and weaknesses. The players on the floor often dictate the offensive plays and efensive sets that WVU will run, and with ten players in the rotation instead of eight, there will be several additional combinations to deal with.
"With all those players, it can de difficult to remember who does what," head coach John Beilein said. "And it can be tough to differentiate between some of them. We're used to preparing for an eight man rotation, but theirs run ten or 11 deep. It will be important for our guys to know them and what they do. We have a smart team, though."
The collision of styles will be one of jarring contrasts, and the team that is able to run and execute its system the best will, almost certainly come out on top. Two items on the stat sheet will likely give a strong indication as to which team will come out on top: turnovers and scoring runs.
West Virginia, of course, values the ball like a precious jewel, while the Demons play the role of thief, averaging 17.8 turnovers forced per contest. Anything under ten in this game, and WVU likely comes out on top.
Scoring runs, or, more accuratley, scoring droughts, will also be critical. Northwestern State held Iowa scoreless a stretch of 9:48 in the first half, and outscored the Hawkeyes 17-3 down the stretch to roar back for the win. On the other side of the coin, West Virginia has suffered through several lengthy scoring droughts of their own this year, and could be susceptible to more against the Demon defense.