Obviously, the absence of veterans Joe Mazzulla and Alex Ruoff has contributed somewhat to WVU's poor shooting, which has also contributed in turn to the Mountaineers' shooting and scoring woes. Ruoff is hitting 37% of his threes, and his absence over the past two games has contributed to West Virginia's hideous 7-39 mark from beyond the arc in those contests. WVU's inability to hit threes has allowed opposing defenses to defend the lane and rim once the Mountaineers get the ball across the midcourt line, which is another factor in West Virginia's shooting woes. Due to those lane-clogging tactics, WVU rarely gets uncontested shots in close (except for those coming in transition) and thus continues to limp along with a team shooting percentage of just 43.4 (13th in the Big East). Only Rutgers, USF and DePaul show worse marks, and they are expected to finish at or near the bottom of the league this year.
All those misses, of course, lead to chances for additional shots – but only if offensive rebounds can be snared. That was a huge weakness for West Virginia over the past few seasons, but a combination of relentless emphasis by the coaching staff, invigorated work in the weight room and the recruitment of length have combined to vault the Mountaineers to the top of the league in that statistical category. WVU is averaging 17.4 offensive boards per game – almost a full rebound above second place Cincinnati. That number has also helped put WVU in a tie atop the league's rebounding margin stats with Pitt. The Panthers and the Mountaineers are out-rebounding their foes by an average of 10.9 per game – a huge advantage.
The biggest question is, can West Virginia continue such dominance? The Mountaineers certainly aren't going to be getting 25 offensive rebounds per game against UConn or Pitt, nor should anyone expect them to. But can they get 12 or 14? And if they do, will that be enough to offset shooting percentages in the low 40s?
Head coach Bob Huggins is as curious as anyone else to see if his team can continue its success on the glass – especially on the offensive end. Conventional wisdom says that WVU's slender front line might not be able to match up with some of the bigger bodies in the league, but Huggins is the last person to succumb to conventional thinking.
"I'm not sure," he said when questioned as to his team's ability to continue to offset poor shooting with multiple chances. "I think if we can keep people spread, we can get people to the ball. We're not very big, but we're long."
While that's true, it's also true of many of the other top-echelon teams in the league – and WVU isn't nearly as experienced as many of them. Devin Ebanks' wingspan has allowed him to simply reach past shorter, stubbier opponents for rebounds in December. He won't be doing that in February – will he be able to learn the tricks of the trade quickly enough to continue his double-digit retrievals off the glass? Will Kevin Jones continue to learn the lessons of savvy board work that he has flashed at times? Will John Flowers and Wellington Smith be able to occupy the big bodies inside to create room for slashing rebounders to get to the glass? Those are the questions to be answered, but the proof is going to come from the playing.
West Virginia's final two pre-Christmas games will offer the chance to continue to hone these skills. Huggins' relentless style doesn't allow for excuses, and he knows that his team isn't likely to outgun many foes from the field. Rebounding, along with team defense (WVU is third in the league in that metric, yielding just 57.4 points per game) will be the linchpins upon which the season resolves. While the Mountaineers' shooting will likely improve when Ruoff returns, it probably won't be the biggest factor that controls WVU's post-season destination. Rebounding, turnover margin and other defensive-sided items will be the ones that determine WVU's success in the league.