WVU To Man Mt. St. Mary's

West Virginia's infusion of athleticism means a continuation of the man-to-man defense it displayed in its exhibition win over Fairmont State. The first test of record: Mount St. Mary's in the season-opener Friday.

The Mountaineers, in their 81-54 victory, played man for the first 25-plus minutes, finally shifting to its trademark 1-3-1 zone with 11 minutes left in the game on a three-pointer by point guard Darris Nichols. WVU flipped defenses often from there, head coach John Beilein trying to get both the zone and man sets on tape as a teaching tool. In all, West Virginia held FSU to 14 turnovers against just 11 assists and a dismal seven-of-23 performance from behind the arc. Attribute part of that to playing a Division II team. But attribute part, as well, to superior athletes getting into the passing lanes and disrupting the Falcons' perimeter-oriented offense.

"Early in the year we are trying to teach man-to-man defense as much as possible," Beilein said. "I think we do have a team that, potentially, if their minds can catch up with their bodies, can be a very good man-to-man team. But I think we will play a lot of defenses."

The initial switch from man to zone came after FSU had scored nine consecutive points following WVU's lead ballooning to 58-33 on a dunk by Joe Alexander – perhaps the most athletic Mountaineer of all at 6-8 and 210 pounds – with 16 minutes left. The defensive change led to consecutive 3-pointers, from Nichols and freshman forward Da'Sean Butler, that made it 64-41 with 10 minutes left, and Fairmont State never got within 20 again.

"It was good to go out and get a win over somebody else," senior forward Frank Young said. "But the veterans on the team know that we are going to play a whole lot better competition during the season. We can't go easily in practice. That was a time to get the jitters out. But it's time to go all-out now. We can't wait until January. We have to do it now against these non-conference opponents."

The first of which is a Mount St. Mary's (Md.) team that returns three starters, albeit off a 13-17 team last season. The team, also nicknamed the Mountaineers, will flash more overall ability than Fairmont State, meaning another step in the test of the man defense. Young said West Virginia has not, of yet, gone over the 1-3-1 much, so it could play more man defense. Beilein must also find where players fit in the zone. It looks as though, per tradition, Nichols will play down low and the center, either Robert Summers or Jamie Smalligan, will man the middle. The wing slots are probably filled by Alexander and Young with Alex Ruoff up front. WVU's man is a simply match-up, like most others.

The man, as well as the zone, will be a continual learning process for West Virginia. Beilein said he could have stopped the exhibition game tape on every play and showed mistakes. The re-teaching effort has just started, and the fifth-year coach said some things will take two or three years to learn. A man defense, however, is often a simply physical match-up – something the Mountaineers might be better able to do than anytime since their run-and-gun 1998 season under former coach Gale Catlett – though a team must execute switches off screens and ball movement and pick up players effectively for it to work.

"We don't want it to be as painful as it can be," Beilein said. "We don't want so many mistakes that you lose the game. But that can happen. The game experience, there is nothing like it, and we'll get that earlier than ever. With a young group, I'd like to have one more week, but it's time to start learning. I thought we ran really well and sprinted the floor really well. The rebounding was good, and I saw some other things. I think our teamwork will be good. But there was a lot of confusion as well."

West Virginia might also put in a 2-3 zone. It used that on occasion last season when it needed to switch out of its 1-3-1.

"As a young team, there were positives and there were a lot of things we still need to work on," Nichols said of the defense. "I knew we were athletic, but I did not know we were that athletic. We got up and down the floor with it."

Notes: *West Virginia received John Flowers' letter-of-intent Thursday. It was the initial day of the early signing period, which lasts through Nov. 15. Flowers, a 6-7, 210-pound forward out of St. Mary's Ryken High in Leonardtown, Md. is the lone WVU commit to this point. The Mountaineers had just two scholarships open after taking seven players in the 2006 class. They also have on offer out to Huntington High's Patrick Patterson (6-8, 235 lbs.), a five-star power forward who is also considering Florida, Kentucky and Wake Forest, among other notables. A three-star recruit, Flowers averaged 21 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.5 blocks as a junior.

"We are elated about John," Beilein said. "He is very athletic and he really gets a lot of the blue-collar, nuts-and-bolts things done. He gets rebounds and put-backs, but he has skills enough to play in our system. We thought we needed one of those guys who really plays around the rim and slashes. He is also a good shooter. We think he will be able to play a lot of different positions for us."

*Young, the lone senior on the roster to have played his entire career at West Virginia, said Butler was the freshman who most impressed him in the exhibition win. The 6-7, 205 pounder will likely be WVU's sixth-man early this season.

"He came on in the second half and ran the offense well," Young said. "He ran in transition and finished well. He hit his free throws, too."

Said Butler: "The first half I did have jitters. The second half I went out and played my game. My teammates told me to do that. I get to watch the game and see what is going on (coming off the bench). I can see what is going on and learn from it. You don't have that ambush at the start. I try to run up and down hard the first three of four times down the court to break a sweat and get into it."


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