It wasn't the first time this year that West Virginia played Darris Nichols, Alex Ruoff and Joe Mazzulla at the same time, but WVU probably never received greater returns from the trio than in the win over the Blue Devils. After a lackluster first half in which West Virginia allowed far too much penetration by the Duke offense, Huggins went with a smaller lineup of the aforementioned trio, plus Joe Alexander and DaSean Butler, to help stem that tide. And although the results weren't totally to Huggins liking, especially on the defensive side, they were good enough to secure the win.
Asked to pick an end of the floor where the lineup had more effect, Nichols couldn't differentiate.
"It was probably both ends," said a visibly tired Nichols, who played 38 minutes. "We kept the ball out of the lane better even though we were in a zone defense. [On offense, it was big that Joe could get into the lane and that Alex could make shots. I think teams may have to respect everyone we put in the game. That's the beauty of our team, we have different players step up on different days."
That certainly happened in this game for Mazzulla, who narrowly missed a triple-double with 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in 31 minutes. And when Alex Ruoff recovered from an uneven fist half by making five of eight second half shots, including a pair of three-pointers, the offensive end of the equation was set, even with Nichols contributing just five points to the mix.
That's not to say that Nichols' presence in the offensive scheme wasn't meaningful. Duke, like several other late-season WVU foes, did everything it could to keep the ball out of Nichols' hands, and while that is personally a frustrating experience for the senior, it also served to divert attention from the other guards in the lineup. Left to bring the ball upcourt and run the offense, Mazzulla thrived while Nichols drew one of Duke's best defenders away from the action. He noted that his performance in this game was much better than his previous outing.
"The last game I wasn't as productive as I could have been," Mazzulla admitted. "I think this game gave me some confidence, and we know that the team isn't going to miss a beat if I have to fill in."
"I was trying to work and get the ball, but Joe stepped up big when I couldn't get it," Nichols said of Duke's ball-denial tactics. "I had the feeling he might have a big game, because he can put some pressure on the rim. It is frustrating when I can't get the ball and run the offense, but we were taking care of the ball, so it's not as basd as if we were turning it over."
"We didn't want to force the ball to Darris, and he probably needed a rest, because he plays so many minutes," Mazzulla added. "Next year I'll have to do that as well, so it was good to get that experience this year."
With Mazzulla attacking into the lane, Nichols drawing defenders and Ruoff hitting a pair of threes and going backdoor for two lay-ups, the offensive picture was complete. But just as important was the defensive side. Duke drove the ball well and penetrated every defense WVU threw at it in the first half, scoring 14 points in the paint and 12 more from the free throw line. But in the second half, WVU's three-guard look caused the Dookies a few problems. Included in the mix were the Mountaineers' point-drop zone and a few tweaks to their existing schemes.
"Duke is a great penetrating team, and they love to kick out to the wings and to the baseline for shots. I think it kind of gave them matchup problems, I think we kept them out of the lane and were able to challenge their shots," Mazzulla noted.
Although WVU was never able to keep the ACC squad completely out of the lane, it did do a better job of that in the second half. Duke settled for more three-pointers than it would have liked, and several of those came after WVU's mobile zone front denied them entry into the lane.
Head coach Bob Huggins credited a few minor changes and better overall play with the improvement in the second half, and although he would have liked to have kept Duke off the free throw line, there isn't much doubt that the second half was a great improvement defensively. Duke made just 36% of its shots from the field in the final 20 minutes, and of its 33 second-half points, 12 of them came in the final minute, when the outcome was already decided.
As Nichols noted, the versatility of this year's Mountaineer squad has been one of its prime strengths. Against Xavier, the focus could shift back to the front line. Another player might jump into the spotlight. But on this afternoon, West Virginia's smaller lineup, featuring its three primary guards, was certainly one of the big keys to victory.