West Virginia Finding Another Way To Win

West Virginia's offense is getting much of the credit for the early success, dropping three-point bombs with alarming regularity and relying on veterans Frank Young and Darris Nichols to settle the youth-laden squad when it's thread of threes threatens to unravel. But it's the No. 25 Mountaineers' defense that has won its last two games, a pair they might have lost last season.

When WVU (12-1, 2-0 Big East) made just six threes against No. 9 Connecticut and went more than seven minutes without scoring against Villanova, it might have meant defeat last season. West Virginia relied so heavily on the outside game that an off night meant a loss. String a cold shooting streak together, and the tally of defeats follows. That often happened around midseason, when a shorter bench created tired legs that simply couldn't maintain the necessary form of a shooter. And since the Mountaineers weren't great defenders, foes kept pounding them inside.

But head coach John Beilein has found the suture for what were defensive liabilities with the addition of Da'Sean Butler, the improvement of Alex Ruoff and Joe Alexander and the solid play of Rob Summers – whose contributions of late have added a solid touch to the interior and a big body that can screen on the outside and body up inside. Never was it more noticeable than on the first trips down the floor for the Huskies. Connecticut tried a lob pass over the top of the 1-3-1 defense, something it and Syracuse have made WVU look silly with in the pass. The throw was snagged out of the air by Ruoff, who elevated from his position on the wing and used his length to grab possession. West Virginia scored on the ensuing trip, a four-point flip.

Connecticut also failed to dribble drive into the interior of the 1-3-1, then dish into the corners and have them dump the ball into the blocks, something proven to work. Instead, when UConn tried the attack, it was trapped along the sideline or inside or forced back outside. The best offense, it seemed, was to jack up a jumper, then grab the rebound and try a putback. But on those long shots, the rebounds come out farther as well, which negates much of any team's inside edge and lessens the rebounding deficiency for WVU.

"We were playing a Rubik's Cube," UConn head coach Jim Calhoun said. "They bothered us with the 1-3-1 and some of our guys did not compete like I wanted them to."

Villanova tried a different approach, much of it out of necessity. The Wildcats drove the middle to draw a player in, then kicked to the wings, who shot or dropped a pass into the corner, where an often-open shot was taken. But all those were long jumpers or threes, and well, if you want to get into stroke play with West Virginia, Beilein will welcome it. Villanova tried in the first half and missed 10 of 13 three-pointers while West Virginia hit 10 in building a 22-point lead. Bielein's unique offensive styling – and his defensive mindset – is predicated on outscoring foes with a different basis than a run-and-gun. It matches its threes with a foe's twos, the thinking being that, with limited possessions due to its offensive running through multiple sets, if it can gain an extra point on numerous trips, it will win, even if an opponent can gash it inside, which was the biggest problem last season.

It's not anymore. And one can point to any number of whys and ways. But the major reason is better athletes. Butler and Alexander up top in the 1-3-1 are quicker, more agile and have better hands than any twosome to play the spot at West Virginia. Ruoff mixes strong all-around play with a bravado unseen last year. Darris Nichols isn't the on-ball, man-to-man defender of former point guard J.D. Collins. But his quickness and added height allow him to get outside to the wings and defend the corner three-pointer more effectively. That height also makes him a better rebounder, a key when one is facing bigger bodies inside. And Summers is certainly an upgrade from Kevin Pittsnogle, one of the top shooters in Mountaineer history, but a slim, 6-11 player that lacked the build and strength to defend in the Big East.

The better pure abilites also lead to improvements offensively. West Virginia finishes on drives. Ruoff and Butler made a series of great interior plays against the Huskies, with Ruoff one-handing a nice lay-in high off the glass and Butler canning a spin and drive on the baseline for two. Alexander flushed a baseline dunk that is certain highlight material, and his size and jumping ability also allowed him to get open and get a great sight line on shots. Most of those come from in the corner, where he hit one at the buzzer to put WVU up by the 22 at the break against Villanova. And it is starting to seem like few point players can stay with Nichols on a drive, especially with his ability to pull up and suddenly sink a short jumper in the lane.

The numbers are there for support, indicating perhaps not just a change in how the Mountaineers can win a ballgame, but how they will. WVU leads the nation in scoring defense at 51.5 points per game. It is third in steals per game and has forced 236 turnovers, more than 100 more than what it has committed. It has also held teams below 40 percent shooting from the field and 26 percent from three-point range. Perhaps the biggest shocker is that West Virginia is getting outrebounded by just two per game, a number sure to balloon, but one what has held nicely despite playing four major conference foes. All those could mean that there might not be a midseason slump. There will be consecutive losses, one would think, but perhaps not the downward spiral of the last two seasons.

Beilein said he does not think his team is the Secretary of Defense yet, but some other ministers of the game are not as sure. "When they made that first half run, it was turnovers, turnovers for us," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. "I think defensively they are better than last year. I think they are more athletic, they are longer, they are quicker. I think a real good team made a good team look bad."


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