Going into the Arizona game, defensive matchups were a question for the Mountaineers. Would WVU be able to keep guard Jerryd Bayless and Nic Wise out of the lane? How would they play against Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill? And most importantly, would West Virginia be able to get back and slow down Arizona's transition offense?
The last question was actually the most important one. Arizona, like Connecticut of the Big East, excels in getting the ball downcourt quickly and creating early shot chances. West Virginia did an excellent job against UConn's transition game, but then fell apart one night later in the same play phase against Georgetown.
Several members of West Virginia's team blamed those breakdowns on lack of hustle and communication problems, so that aspect of WVU's defensive game came in for a great deal of work in its preparation for the Wildcats. Whether the credit goes to improved communication or better execution, the Mountaineers were again on top of their defensive game against Arizona. So much so, in fact, that the Wildcats scored just two fast break points all night.
"They have super quick guards. They are probably the two quickest guards we have faced all year," siad WVU's Alex Ruoff, who squared up against the Wildcat blazers for much of the night. "That was one of the huge keys fo the game. I thought we did a great job."
Faced with the loss of points it is used to getting off fast breaks, Arizona still had offensive firepower. Using a series of staggered screen, and the cross ball screen that has been so effective against WVU this year, the Wildcats were able to free Budinger for some shots against shorter defenders. Sometimes, that defender was Ruoff, who switched off onto taller Arizona forwards several times. That assignment made for a difficult "instant change" as Ruoff and his teammates had to switch mindsets from guard containment to a more physical style of play.
"That's just homework," Ruoff said of what happens mentally when jumping from a guard to a forward on the defensive end. "We've watched film on all the players, so that scouting report, as soon as you switch, is running through your head. You know their tendencies, and you just have to adjust."
It sounds simple enough, of course, but it really isn't. One second you are on the perimeter with thoughts of moving your feet and staying in front of your foe, and the next you are trying to deny cuts and hold your ground against a player who outweights you by 20 or 30 pounds. And all of this, of course, after sprinting back on defense and finding your man in the chaos of an open court game. It's a difficult job, but one that West Virginia has done a very good job of in two of its last three outings.
"We knew that we had to get back in transition," Joe Mazzulla noted. "We have done that against past teams. We did it against UConn, and Arizona was kind of a mirror of them. We knew that if we could contain UConn, we could do it against Arizona. I think it really carried over from that game to this one. [Arizona] has really quick guards like UConn does, and we had the same game plan on defense as we did against UConn."
A game plan that was executed very well, even to head coach Bob Huggins exacting standards. Although the Wildcats were able to score in the halfcourt, they were never able to get their running game cranked up. And thanks, in part at least, to the lessons West Virginia learned in the Big East tournament, the Mountaineers are now headed for a second round matchup with Duke.