Making Moves

West Virginia head coach John Beilein has a number of principles that guide his basketball methodologies, but he certainly isn't a slave to them, as he proved in West Virginia's 64-52 win over DePaul on Sunday.

Before that's explained, a bit of background is required. One of Beilein's tenets of the game is to make mismatches work in his favor. O.K., that's nothing earth-shattering. Every coach tries to set up advantageous matchups that he can exploit. But West Virginia's veteran coach, as you might expect, usually views mismatches with a slightly different eye. While most coaches get involved in a chess match of substitutions and offensive and defensive changeups, Beilein will often not respond to such tactics, especially if he feels the matchup will eventually work out in his favor.

One of the best examples of this was his use of Kevin Pittsnogle over the last two seasons. The Martinsburg, W. Va. native was an indifferent defender at best, and often yielded points and offensive rebounds to foes that other Mountaineers, such as D'or Fischer or Rob Summers, might not have. Opposing coaches knew full well of Pittsnogle's defensive limitations, and thus sent streams of big men at him to post up on the offensive end.

Many coaches, upon seeing that, might have played Pittsnogle less, or brought another big man into the game to try to counter that tactic. However, Beilein recognized something in those situations that many did not – while his sharpshooting big guy might give up 10 or 12 points on defense, he would usually put up 17 or 20 or 25 of his own. That tradeoff, to Beilein, meant that the supposed mismatch was actually one that worked in the Mountaineers' favor.

Sure, Beilein could have tried to force a "twin towers" concept to work in order to keep Pittsnogle out of the defensive spotlight. But such a move might have disrupted his offense and cost West Virginia even more points that what it was giving up on the defensive end. Certainly, pulling Pittsnogle from the game would. So while many carped about the defensive liabilities of the team, Beilein sat back and smiled as his "no-response" strategy worked like a charm.

There were, and are, many other examples. J.D. Collins certainly wasn't the greatest scorer to ever come down the pike, but his gritty defensive play at the bottom of the 1-3-1 offset any lack of offensive production, and then some, even though he routinely gave up more than a foot in height and 50 pounds in weight to his foes. What looked like a mismatch in one direction actually worked out in the Mountaineers' favor.

With that in mind, it had to be something of a surprise to see Beilein respond to DePaul's small lineup with one of his own. That's not something the Mountaineer mentor routinely does, but in this case it worked out to be yet another excellent move.

"When they got their big guy in foul trouble, they came back with a smaller lineup," Beilein recounted after the game. "And it wasn't my idea, it was [assistant coach] Mike Maker's. He saw that lineup and said, ‘Hey, why don't we go small too?'"

To counter DePaul's three guard, two forward look, WVU subbed Da'Sean Butler into the lineup for Jamie Smalligan at the 9:22 mark with the Mountaineers clinging to a three-point lead. The new set, consisting of Butler, Darris Nichols, Alex Ruoff, Frank Young and Joe Alexander, was better equipped to counter DePaul's dribble drive offense. It also put five players on the floor capable of making their own drives to the goal, which finally overwhelmed DePaul's man-to-man tactics. And this time, it came as the direct result of a counter.

"It was a bit of a cat-and-mouse game there," Beilein acknowledged of the move, which resulted in almost eight minutes of consecutive play for his smaller quintet.

In this case, the WVU cat snared the dancing, weaving DePaul mouse, which to that point had stayed in the game by getting into the lane on offense and holding the Mountaineers without a field goal for the first 11:11 of the second half. Butler broke that streak just 33 seconds after he entered the game for Smalligan, which set off a 16-6 WVU run that put the game away for the Mountaineers.

This certainly doesn't signal a change in Beilein's beliefs, of course. He will continue to analyze matchups with that different eye, and will probably continue to find things in them that many others overlook – advantages that end up accruing on his size of the ledger. However, on this afternoon, he showed that he can play the classic adjustment game as well. Maker's suggestion, and his response, were certainly one of the key reasons West Virginia earned its 16th win of the season.


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