"I thought we were in real trouble when it was 21-8," said Beilein, whose wizardry has morphed far lesser teams into the sum-of-all-parts machines. Yet the Capital Classic had turned into a Herd dunkfest, with Markel Humphrey creating highlights persona and MU threatening for legit states' rights for the third consecutive season. The turnover battle, and the lovely storyline, turned to hogwash. These Mountaineers won via a blitzkrieg of second-half scoring under the guise of offensive execution.
The 56 second-half points – the most scored in any 20-minute period by WVU this season – looked NBA-like. The 66.7 shooting percentage was sublime, matched by the play of Frank Young and a Johnny-come-lately named Jamie who turned down his best shot to take a shot at his worst. Forgoing a three, the center drove the lane a stuffed a bucket that crushed rising Marshall confidence and energized his own squad while restoring confidence to a player lacking such after being rejected by the rim on a similar try earlier this year. It all looked, and read, offensive.
It's like that with the 2007 Mountaineers. If they could have shot better against Marquette, could have attacked Notre Dame pressure, could have avoided seven-minute draughts and allowed 14-0 runs against Cincinnati. What's winning games for this team, however, the only common theme in victories, is defense. The Big East's worst board team has outrebounded foes and somehow lost. It has had games in which it went to the line for 34 shots or as few as four, that coming twice. It has made just six three-pointers and beaten a ninth-rated squad and canned 15 and gotten beat by the worst team in the league.
There is no reason, no rhyme. Only defense. West Virginia has yet to lose when holding foes below 45 percent shooting. Of the four losses, Arkansas and Notre Dame hit 53.5 percent, Marquette 52.7 and Cincinnati 45.3. In the 15 wins, opponents have converted 285 of 740 shots (38.5 percent). In the losses, the combined total is 104 for 205 (50.7 percent) with Marquette and Cincinnati each making 29 field goals and Arkansas and Notre Dame hitting 23 on 43 tries each.
Said Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun after his team's 81-71 dispatching: "The 1-3-1 zone looked like a Rubik's Cube to us. We prepared as hard for it as ever. We probably spent three solid hours over the course of the last few days preparing. We even cut up clips of last year's game here to show the kids how we moved the ball for easy lay ups and shots. We just didn't have the personnel to finish those plays today."
They might have in the past, but not now. With Young, 6-8 Joe Alexander and freshman stud Da'Sean Butler handling the point of the trademark zone, it has proven reliable again and again. It snuffed the first three Big East teams. And just when it seemed Marshall had figured it out, had twisted and tweaked the Cube until it shined uniformly on all sides, Beilein took it back – making even more of a veteran move that also showed insight and maturity.
"They went scoreless in 14 possessions in the first half against our man defense," Beilein said after the Marshall game. So West Virginia went with it in the second half, forcing MU to evolve or die. It perished in a points onslaught brought about not just by good shooting or great passing, but more via the defense. It is what sustained WVU and kept it within five at halftime after putting up a season-low in first half points with 21.
As Young pointed out, shots might not fall, the offensive might not flow. But there's no excuse for a lack of effort, and that's really what defense is, with a blend and a dash of fundamentals. It's desire. When there's a lid on the hoop, and the breaks are beatin' the boys, well, a stop's as good as a basket. The Mountaineers didn't grasp that last season; the idea seemed foreign, and the results showed late. The legs went, the shots went, and the wins followed. Now, piece together a three- or four-game stretch in which the shooting is poor, and the contest is yet winnable.
That makes West Virginia, ranked ninth in the NCAA in scoring defense, very dangerous should it smash the psychological road-win barrier.
"I don't know what people sat on with last year's team," Beilein said. "Did they sit on (Kevin) Pittsnogle or (Mike) Gansey? Did they make Patrick (Beilein) drive it? It's hard to sit on people with this team. There is great balance there. Then you have the defensive end. Our length bothers people. We get up and challenge shooters. I am still not ready to say we are the Secretary of Defense but we are working on it."