Getting offensive rebounds is an uphill battle, because the offense is usually facing the inherent disadvantage of being further from the basket when the shot is take. Just as in war, defenders hold the better ground, and thus have a big leg up in snaring missed shots. However, the offense isn't totally without edges, either. Players going to the basket can look for gaps and hit them at top speed, while defenders trying to block them out have to find, them, get to them, put a body on them, and then turn to find the ball. The offense, facing the basket the whole way, can follow the ball the entire time. If they find a gap, they can usually get a running jump on the ball as it caroms off the rim.
Of course, defensive players exist that don't have to worry a great deal about boxing out as much as other do. These are the guys who are so long, or so big, or so springy, that they can simply turn and go to the boards. They jump so high that clanking shots don't bound over their heads. They are so long that they can snare rebounds that don't come directly to them. They are so big that they occupy enough space to keep rebounders away by their sheer bulk. Every Big East team has a couple of them – except for West Virginia and a couple of other squads.
For the Mountaineers, rebounding, especially on the offensive end, is a much more difficult task. WV has yielded 181 boards on that end this year, including a total of 31 in its last two games against Marshall and USF. Neither of those teams are board powerhouses, so the sight of those totals is a disconcerting one. The problem for West Virginia is that it not only has to execute all of the tasks described above, but that they must do so further from the hoop than any other team.
"When we get pushed in we can't rebound," head coach Bob Huggins explained. "If we get pushed in, they are going to outreach us and they are going to out jump us. We are working on not getting pushed in. We can't just turn around and go rebound. We have to go meet people and keep them further away form the goal because they are so much longer than we are. We have to continue to work on it."
That might not sound so tough on the surface, but the fact is that it adds an exponential degree of difficulty to rebound. If a Mountaineer has to block out a foe two feet from the rim, the are he has to cover is relatively small. If he has to do the same thing six feet away, that coverage area jumps dramatically. And that doesn't even take into account the time factor – boxing out further from the hoop requires more distance to be covered in a shorter amount of time. We're talking split seconds here, but that is all that it takes to make the difference between a possession-ending grab by the defense or a demoralizing putback score by the offense.
That leads to a further thought – is West Virginia having to work so hard at finding opponents and boxing them out that it misses a few rebounds as a result? Is so much effort being expended that none is left to locate the ball and make a strong jump for it? While that's certainly not the reason for all of the offensive rebounds yielded by WVU, it does seem to account for a few of them. Against the Bulls, West Virginia gave up a handful of rebounds where the ball seemed to sail by within grabbing distance, only to see them fall to USF players that appeared to be screened out of the play.
"I'm not sure about that," said John Flowers when asked about this theory. "When you go to box a man out, you first look for the man and not the ball, so if I'm hitting my man and the ball comes my way, then it's my rebound. I have to make sure my man doesn't get the ball."
Fair enough, but what about those times when the man does get the ball – when it looked liked WVU should have it?
"It's just mental errors," Flowers said. "You have to know where the ball is."
Wellington Smith takes a slightly different tack, echoing some of Huggins' instructions in the process.
"You just have to find the man before they find you," he said. "While they are trying to go and get the rebound, we have to find them. If we don't hit them before they hit us, they are going to get the rebound no matter what. We have to box out every guy, and box them out so far that we can get the rebound no matter how far it bounces out. We have to get on their legs and push them out to where they can't see the ball."
The picture emerges, then, of a process that has to go exactly right, in all phases, for West Virginia to be successful. The Mountaineers, who defend vigorously, must transition quickly when a shot goes up. They have to box out every foe, all the way to the three-point line. They have to avoid getting pushed under the hoop into a scrum where they are at a disadvantage. And they have to locate the ball and attack is as fiercely as they do on the offensive end themselves. Huggins, in a previous press conference, noted that West Virginia has to do everything right in order to win. That's a difficult task, but one which his team will have to complete in order to get through the brutal conference stretch that begins on Thursday.