Road Woes? Not The Real Story

Analysis of West Virginia's two road losses will likely lead many to conclude that the key story of the Mountaineers' season will be its ability to break through with wins away from home. While that is certainly something WVU will have to do in order to get an NCAA bid and make more noise on the national scene, it's not the reason for West Virginia's up and down play in its two most recent games.

Certainly, playing on the road isn't as easy as playing at home. Sleeping in your own bed, shooting your own ball in the venue you practice in dozens of times over, and fan support all combine to give homestanding teams an obvious edge. However, those factors certainly weren't enough to cause WVU's losses to Marquette and Notre Dame over the past week. And that's a good thing, because there's nothing teams can do to change those factors.

Instead, there were several other reasons for WVU's 0-2 week. And while some aren't going to be easy to correct in the short term, they are items that head coach John Beilein has certainly seen before.

1) Man-To-Man Defense

Once West Virginia proves that it can make three-point shots, foes begin to make adjustments to take open looks away. That has happened in every iteration of Beilein's squads, and it's starting to become prevalent again this year. Even after a cover your eyes 5-22 performance from three-point range against Marquette, the Mountaineers were still hitting 37.7% from long range on the year. Opponents know they can't let West Virginia have uncontested looks from anywhere on the court, and are thus playing tight, in-your-face man coverage against WVU.

The counter to this strategy is a fairly simple one in concept, but one that's difficult to execute, especially for a young team. West Virginia must drive the ball against tight defense, set strong screens and run backcuts time and again to force defenders from playing so closely. Guards Darris Nichols and Alex Ruoff must drive the ball to create openings for teammates, but must be able to do so without getting too far into the defense and giving up turnovers. WVU's forwards must also put the ball on the floor, something that begin to manifest itself against Marquette, but again efficiency is the key. If one out of every four or five drives results in a turnover, that's a win for the defense.

2) Situational Awareness

This is something of a broad category, and manifests itself in a number of ways. For example, in the first half of the Marquette game, Rob Summers had two fouls. After Jamie Smalligan encountered a rough stretch, Summers reentered with about five minutes to go. However, he quickly committed his third foul some 35 feet from the basket – an error that killed West Virginia's rotation for the remainder of the game.

Another example was the lack of recognition of different foes on the court and their abilities. WVU left the two best three-point shooters it faced during the week, Notre Dame's Colin Falls and Marquette's David Cubillan, alone on defensive rotations, while covering other players that were lesser threats from the outside. Both players hit key threes against West Virginia that kept the Mountaineers at bay in both contests.

Of course, much of this sort of knowledge comes with experience. WVU will undoubtedly be much better in this area in February 2007 than it is right now.

3) Attacking The Press

After Connecticut and Villanova showed that pressure in the backcourt could hamper West Virginia's offensive attack, even teams that don't typically cross the half court line defensively are challenging the Mountaineers in the backcourt. A variety of 2-1-2 and 2-2-1 presses have given WVU trouble in advancing the ball, and there's no doubt that it will continue to see it, no matter what the venue, until it shows that it can make opponents pay for stretching the defense. So far, the Mountaineers haven't attacked presses at all, and thus there has been little risk for foes to deploy their defenders in press configurations.

4) Those Are The Breaks

Sometimes, things just don't go your way. Whether it's some bounces of the ball, bad officiating or a great performance by the other team, there are going to be games that you just aren't going to win. Those usually balance out, of course, so WVU will enjoy one or two of those this year. IT was on the receiving end against Marquette, when the Golden Eagles, who shoot with all the accuracy of Bricklayers Local #29, made 60.7% of their shots from the field, and a blazing 66.7% from three-point range. Shooting is the one chink in Marquette's armor, and if the Golden Eagles approach 45% form the field, they will be very difficult to beat, no matter whom the opponent is.

None of these items are insurmountable, so the implication isn't that WVU's season is suddenly going south. However, none of them are direct results of playing on the road, either. They are simply issues that West Virginia will have to tackle, and correct, no matter where they are playing.

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