Transition In Transition

In addition to learning the Beilein offense, the newcomers on this year's Mountaineer basketball team are trying to add another skill set to their arsenal.

In looking at the development of the 2006-07 Mountaineers, the expectations were that the freshmen and lightly experienced returnees would go through an extensive learning curve as they worked on the Beilein offense. The myriad sets, reads and decisions to be made take at least a year of solid work to master, and thus the thinking of most seasoned observers was that West Virginia would be a much better team in February that it was in November or December.

While that supposition will hold true, there might be a bit of a different twist along the way. WVU has progressed a bit more quickly in learning the offense that what was originally predicted, and although it still has a long way to go in a lot of areas, the halfcourt offense has not been the total mishmash that some predicted. For sure, players are sometimes taking shots too quickly, and plays are getting blown up due to the wrong read, and there's still a huge difference in continuity when Darris Nichols leaves the floor. However, the starting five, with Jamie Smalligan and Da'Sean Butler added in, are playing better than expected in the halfcourt.

The twist, the X-factor that wasn't discussed much in preseason, was West Virginia's transition offense. Head coach John Beilein said his team would try to run more to keep it from having to grind points out in the half court, but that was accepted as so much lip service. The perception was that Beilein didn't like to run, didn't want an up and down game, and preferred to milk the shot clock and keep scores low. Those assessments, just like those that label the Beilein offense the "Princeton offense", were off base.

Although the Mountaineers certainly won't be mistaken for the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s or Hank Gathers' and Bo Kimble's Loyola Marymount teams, there is certainly an emphasis on getting the ball out into the fast break off defensive rebounds this year. However, just like the learning process that Beilein's first team at West Virginia fought through, getting comfortable in the transition offense has been, and will continue to be, a tough fight for the team.

Just like that first season, the entire Mountaineer squad this year is learning how to execute in transition. There's a lot more to it than just running at breakneck speed down the court. There's filling lanes, spacing, setting up the defense, handling the ball at top speed, and decision making – all items that occur differently in the open court than they do in a patterned play. And while some of West Virginia's players came from transition-oriented teams, they still have to learn how to play together, to anticipate moves, and to know when to pass and shoot on the break – all things that simply require a lot of repetition.

Another item which makes transition offense more difficult to execute is that those repetitions have to come in games to make the lessons sink in. While Beilein runs numerous drills, including the continuous fast break, in practice, there's a bit of difference in real time, when full out sprints and changes of direction, not to mention a pursuing horde of defenders, makes ballhandling and decision making even more pressure packed. It's somewhat akin to punt returns, which are practiced, but without the threat of big hits that can make catching the ball and the first couple of steps much more difficult in games. WVU is slowly building that experience, but it will certainly be much better a year from now than it is today.

Some of the mistakes that make transition offense break down were evident in the Arkansas game. They weren't huge gaffes, but they were enough to turn what should have been 8-10 points in transitions into turnovers, and in one case, a Razorback dunk on the other end. Those points, had West Virginia converted them, would have put WVU in position to steal the game at the end.

For example, both Alex Ruoff and Da'Sean Butler caught passes in transition and were primed to either attack the basket or make a defender commit to covering the ball. Neither, however, secured the ball, and the resulting bobbles ended in a turnover and a poor shot. WVU also missed two makeable lay-ups in similar situations where the Mountaineers had a numbers advantage. Add them all up, and they made the difference in West Virginia's strong effort to win the game.

That's not to single out those players, however. During the season's first six games, the Mountaineers have had similar mistakes that have cost them points. And those mistakes, while painful, are part of the growing process.

Fortunately for WVU, the mistakes are more mental than physical. The Mountaineers are still learning when to push the ball and when to back it out, but they have a pair of heady point guards in Nichols and Joe Mazzulla that will learn those lessons. Butler and Joe Alexander are excellent finishers – they just need to be given the ball in the correct spots. Ditto for the Center tandem of Smalligan and Summers, who shouldn't be given the ball when they are running on the wing. All of those things take time to learn. And they will be learned by this team, which has shown a bit more basketball savvy than some suspected they possessed. However, just as Beilein's first team took some time to learn all the nuances of his offense, so too with this team as it takes daily courses in the execution of transition.

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