Lessons Learned, Friars Burned

Turns out there was something beautiful to be taken from West Virginia's ugly 58-53 win over Providence in the first round of the Big East Tournament.

(A) Expect the unexpected and (B) adjust on the fly. Two surprises suddenly appeared for the Mountaineers against Providence. The first was that WVU's man defense – the pride, if not always joy – of head coach Bob Huggins was at times shredded by the Friar's new-look offense. PC, among the Big East's worst teams in terms of wins, but its best in outside shooting, moved forward Geoff McDermott to point guard after its last loss to the Mountaineers. It reeled off wins in two of three games to get a third match-up with WVU. Head coach Tim Welsh kept the look, and watched his team find openings down the middle and off screens. It seemed West Virginia was surprised by what it saw, a shock considering one of the scouting tapes Huggins had to have watched was PC's recent victory over Connecticut.

"We work so hard at it," Huggins said. "You know, we were just trying to tell our guys we have worked this hard, let's get it stopped. Let's do what we are supposed to do. I thought we made them take hard shots. (But) they did a great job of controlling tempo."

Providence managed to score 16 points in the paint during an 18-4 run in the midst of the first period. McDermott was moving well within the offense with or without the ball. His flow and ability to draw defenders affected that of the other players, creating openings for Weyinmi Efejuku and Jeff Xavier. The duo, who finished with 12 and eight points, respectively, were and inside-outside threat that nearly derailed WVU's postseason train.

The second was Providence's amorphous defense. When West Virginia went high-low, PC switched into a man zone. When the Mountaineers ran through typical motion sets, the Friars moved to a drop match-up defense in which it followed Joe Alexander throughout with a defender. That limited the first-team All-Big East forward's comfortablility at best and his productivity at worst. Alexander finished with 22 points and six rebounds, but committed six turnovers and never found the flow his game had in the closing trio of regular season games.

His limitations, and those of Alex Ruoff and Darris Nichols – they finished a combined three of 13 from the field for seven points – not only hindered the offense, but appeared to take a defensive toll. For a team that appeared to be on the backside of a stretch in which, according to Huggins, its "whole self-worth is wrapped up in whether or not we make jump shots," missing them against Providence triggered issues on the opposite end.

"They averaged 70 points a game in the league and they got 58," Welsh said. "From that perspective, we did a good job. We got the game into the 50s, and it becomes a scratch-and-claw-type game."

One in which the Mountaineers defused what bothered them just enough. Providence was held to just four three-pointers, below the Mendoza line of six set by Huggins. West Virginia also won battles in rebounding (31-29) and foul shooting (seven to nine) while amassing more assists (15-13) and fewer turnovers (17-18).

"We're learning," Huggins said. "People don't realize how young this team is. Da'Sean (Butler) is a veteran for us and he is a sophomore. Joe (Alexander) didn't play at all as a freshman and played limited minutes at the end last year. So I think we are getting better and better because these guys are getting more playing time and they are getting experience. We're learning."

Without having to lose. Unlike under the former regime, West Virginia no longer has to sacrafice learning for losses. As Huggins notes, "I'd rather be ahead than behind, have the ball than not, and win rather than lose."

Chalk it up to that. Lessoned learned; Victory earned. And the quarterfinals still awaiting. Not a bad tutorial overall.

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