The Mountaineers, under head coach Bob Huggins, want to be sure of their solidarity within the half court sets before moving onto full court looks. Because of WVU's average defensive play in a scrimmage over the weekend – and it's steady, if not superb, development thus far – the first-year mentor is waiting on any complex looks. Instead, West Virginia will continue to work on its man defense and 2-3 and 1-1-3 zones for this week as it continually examines possibilities to move beyond that.
"As of now, we are trying to get our half court right," said Alex Ruoff, who is now a guard in a system where labeling positions is largely irrelevant. "We have not yet focused on pressing much. We have done it a couple games in practice just in case we end to do it at the end of a game, but we haven't focused too much on it. It is fun. It's fun to make people uncomfortable, especially when you can create turnovers. Same with the (1-3-1) zone last year. It got really fun."
Which can happen again, but might not be totally refined and ready until well into midseason. Huggins noted that WVU would be a "work in progress" all year, and despite devoting nearly two hours and 15 minutes per three-hour practice session to defense, the Mountaineers are still not where the demanding defensive coach would like. Guard Darris Nichols said that the change has been significant, as former head coach John Beilein was mainly offensive-based and would spend the majority of practice time on his intricate, read offense. The latter portions were for the 1-3-1 zone normally used, as well as the occasional man looks. No more. Now it's straight up man, with the mix of zones and the demand that players stay in proper posture and look at all times.
The theories are different as well. Beilein wanted to mainly fool opposing offenses, utilizing his zone to confuse foes into turnovers. Huggins relies on players physically beating opponents and playing a harder, tougher style that will win attrition battles over the 40 minutes of play. That takes more raw talent, something Huggins thinks he has at West Virginia more than he did at Kansas State, where he won 23 games last season.
"We played well at times defensively and then not so well at times," Huggins said of both practices and the scrimmage. "We have a lot of work to do to get things where we want them to be. We fouled too much. We have to do a better job of keeping our hands off. It was kind of the nickel and dime kind of deals where you put your hands on somebody."
West Virginia held foes to 62.4 points per game last season on the strength of its ball control and lack of turnovers. Opponents shot 43.9 percent from the field to WVU's 45.8 and had 579 turnovers in a 27-9 NIT championship year. The Mountaineers tallied 406 turnovers to 633 assists. Those numbers will surely have more balance, and the opposing scoring could also rise, as should West Virginia's if it can play as quickly as it would like. That begins with the press and man defense.
"We tried a little bit on Saturday (to run the press), but it wasn't very good," Huggins said. "They were not really ready and we were not really ready. It is still awfully early. We are naturally not in game shape. We are asking them to do things they have not done before from a technique standpoint. It is a change, so we are not always where we are supposed to be. It's a natural tendency. A guy goes to go by you and you reach out and put your hands on him. The point of emphasis is that you can't do that. We have to do a better job as a team."
Kansas State allowed an average of 65 points per game and 43.0 percent shooting while gathering more than two rebounds more per game. Foes had 535 turnovers to 478 for the Wildcats.
"The nice thing about it is that all the defensive stuff is based on the same principles," center Jamie Smalligan said. "It's not a big switch. Even in the zone we have the same principles of pressuring your man, not allowing them to get to the middle, if you're off the ball, staying in the back. It's the same stuff."
Note: Forward Cam Thoroughman returned to practice today for the first time since injuring his knee. He has not practiced at all in more than one month, and is slowly working back into shape. It is unknown if he will be able to play this season..
"I don't know how fast we can get him caught up," said Huggins, who did sell his house in Manhattan, Kan. and is now searching for one in Morgantown. "I don't know how much he can contribute."