Following West Virginia's desultory loss to Notre Dame on Jan. 3, the Mountaineers returned home in need of a spark. Although WVU's man-to-man defense has been good for much of the season, the Mountaineers needed a zone defense to pair with that set. And while WVU has been playing the 1-3-1 installed by John Beilein at times this year, that set would not be a good matchup against Marquette's drive and dish offense, which attacks very well along the baseline – a weak point of the 1-3-1. So, Huggins went to work, installing and employing a triangle-and-two defense in just two days.
"We put that in the day after the Notre Dame loss," guard Alex Ruoff confirmed. We were all kind of down, so we put it in and worked on it hard (on Saturday) and it paid off.. They were kind of lost against it – they didn't seem to know whether to run zone stuff or man stuff."
The triangle-and-two wasn't something that the visiting Golden Eagles hadn't seen before. Head coach Tom Crean was surprised that his junior-laden team didn't respond better to it.
"That was something we have worked against in practice a lot," said Crean. "But it took us four or five trips just to get into our offense against it."
Perhaps it was the surprise of seeing Huggins, who is renowned for man-to-man and the "amoeba" or 1-1-3 defense, in such a radically different set, that threw Marquette for a loop. But it was obvious that the Golden Eagles were disjointed, as they committed 11 first half turnovers (including three apiece from guards Jerel McNeal and Wes Matthews).
Installing a defense and running it after just a couple of days isn't something a lot of coaches would do, but Huggins isn't most coaches. Even though he knew very little about the triangle and two, he also knew that West Virginia had to have a different weapon to employ against Marquette, which excels at penetrating from the perimeter and creating problems in the lane. West Virginia's guards, overall, couldn't match the quickness of the Marquette, trio, so Huggins deployed defense in depth. He put his guards in man-to-man against Marquette's best two guards on the floor at any one time, then placed his other defenders in a triangle in the lane. And then, he pretty much let them play, as he admitted nothing more than a nodding familiarity with the look.
"I have never used the triangle and two," Huggins said after the game. "But they are so hard to contain, because they have so many people who can drive it to the rim. I called [USC head coach] Tim Floyd, and talked to him about it, and he helped me a bunch. He said he thought we would be good at it, because we are good with our man-to-man defensive principles, and that was the one thing he emphasized. ‘Don't forget your man-to-man principles."
The theory behind West Virginia's use of the defense was simple – guard the best players and limit their touches. In this game, that meant Marquette's Dominic James always drew one man-to-man defender, and most of the time that assignment went to defensive bulldog Joe Mazzulla, who hounded James for much of the night, limiting him to ten points (including just two in garbage time in the second half
Of course, the defense wasn't perfect. James was able to penetrate at times and whip passes to teammates cutting along the baseline behind the zone portion of the defense, and the Golden Eagles were also able to get some open three-point looks by unbalancing the floor, drawing the WVU defense to one side, then kicking the ball cross-court to jump shooters spotting up behind the arc. However, it wasn't enough, as West Virginia was able, on just two days' work, to play the defense well enough to knock off the nation's tenth-ranked team.
While there may be a couple other teams against which WVU might use the defense, it's more likely to be something the Mountaineers pull out only rarely. It could be an option against Villanova, which, like Marquette, features a smaller, guard-oriented lineup, and it could also be used as a change of pace for a couple of possessions here and there. But for one night, it was WVU's primary defensive weapon, and even though it was forged only shortly before the game, it was one sharp enough to produce a big win for the Mountaineers.