For a team with a 43.1% shooting average, West Virginia has performed remarkably well on the court this year. However, it has to struggle for just about every point it earns. Other than the occasional perimeter steal and dunk, the Mountaineers haven't been able to beat defenses down the floor and get high percentage shots. Such chances make up the bulk of the "easy scores" a team can get – and without those, WVU is forced to run its offense and execute at a high level of efficiency in order to score enough points to win.
There are other ways of getting easy scores, of course. A back cut for an open lay-up, or an offensive rebound and a close-in second shot are among those, and West Virginia does get its share of those chances. However, shots in transition, with a numbers advantage or before the defense can get set, yield the bulk of high-percentage chances, and it's in that area that the Mountaineers fall short.
Simply put, West Virginia does not have a good transition game. Certainly, the individual skills would seem to be there. Freshman point guard Truck Bryant is comfortable pushing the ball upcourt, and has both the quickness and strength to fend off defenders in the open court. Alex Ruoff and Da'Sean Butler are likewise able to dribble or move the ball up the floor quickly. The Mountaineers have high leapers like Devin Ebanks, Wellington Smith and John Flowers to be on the receiving end of lob passes that should result in dunks, and Kevin Jones has the know how to fill lanes and make cuts to the hoop at the right time. So why can't the Mountaineers generate more fast breaks?
The answer, as it often does, lies in execution of fundamentals. There are a couple of areas in which WVU's transition game falls short, and when those are combined they often squelch the chances for an easy hoop.
First, and most importantly, West Virginia does not get outlet passes upcourt well. The first pass after a rebound or a steal is critical in starting the transition offense, and too often that pass doesn't come quickly enough or go to the right person. Ideally, an outlet pass goes to the point guard or another good ball handler, and is made away from traffic so that the recipient can immediately push the ball upcourt or pass it to a teammate in the middle of the floor.
That just doesn't happen consistently for West Virginia, however. Passes are made to guards that have to come back for the ball, which allows defenders more time to get downcourt. Outlets sometimes lead the recipients right into the defense, which is another transition killer. Improvement in this area takes work, just like any other basketball skill. Guards need to find open areas where they can catch the ball and immediately see the court. Outlet passes must not lead their targets into a defender, or hold the ball before getting rid of it.
Next, the Mountaineers don't space the floor as well as they should on the break. In a two-on-one situation, the two offensive players should be outside the lane on opposite sides of the floor, so as to force the defender to make a decision as to whom he will guard. In a three-on-two, the preference is to get the ball in the middle of the floor, with the other two offensive players out wide and angling sharply toward the basket. Again, the key is to spread the floor and make defenders commit to one offensive player.
All of these things are fundamentals, but in the heat of battle don't get executed as crisply as they should. Two players might occupy the same lane, or be too close together, allowing one defender to check both of them until help arrives.
Finally, despite some high leapers, West Virginia simply doesn't attack the rim as it should in transition. With a man advantage, WVU should be able to throw the ball to the rim for players such as Ebanks, Flowers or Smith to catch and dunk, but that simply isn't part of its offensive repertoire. Again, this is a skill that should improve over time, but for now the lob and jam isn't a staple of WVU's transition attack.
The same holds true of many of West Virginia's shot attempts in transition. The phrase "going up strong" applies here, but sometimes it seems to be a struggle to simply get a shot away. Joe Mazzulla was one Mountaineer who excelled in this regard – his hell-bent drives to the hoop weren't 100% successful, but he initiated contact and drew fouls on many occasions. That's something that has been missing since he was lost for the season, and is another area that WVU could improve upon in its transition game.
Many of these items, as noted, can be improved upon with time and experience. West Virginia's youth certainly plays into some of the shortcomings here, and that's not a blanket excuse. Learning to run a fast break properly takes time, and it's one of the 1,001 lessons that a freshman has to master. However, for this year's team, it's a critical one. If WVU could get three or four additional hoops in its transition game, it could prove to be the difference in the tight tournament games to come – and that's the difference in advancing or packing it up for the season