It is the most basic of basketball fundamentals. When it comes to rebounding, find the man and then find the ball. After all, what good is locating the ball first if you aren't blocking anybody out?
Ever since Bob Huggins took over the program at his alma mater, perhaps this fundamental has been stressed more than any other. While the team and program Huggins inherited was by no means in dire straits, perhaps its biggest area of weakness under former head coach John Beilein was rebounding. From day one, Huggins has changed that.
Never was that more apparent than in Wednesday night's Big East tournament second-round win over 10th seeded Notre Dame. To say the Mountaineers dominated the glass would be like saying "The Dark Knight" did OK at the box office last summer. West Virginia held a plus-20 edge on the glass, 52-32, including a jaw-dropping 20 offensive rebounds, en route to the 74-62 win.
Freshman forward Devin Ebanks corralled 18 rebounds, shattering the former WVU Big East tournament mark of 14 held by Gordon Malone. It was the third game this season in which Ebanks has recorded at least 17 rebounds.
Grabbing the rebounds is one thing, but keeping Notre Dame's Luke Harangody from doing the same is a horse of a different color. Harangody entered the game leading the Big East in rebounding at more than 12 per game. He had just eight against WVU as the Fighting Irish were relegated to a likely NIT berth.
Of course this goes back to the aforementioned rebounding fundamental of finding the man, then the ball. In the case of Harangody, West Virginia's players found him early and often, keeping the All-America candidate off the offensive glass for the most part.
"I think that he gets a lot of his points just simply by hanging around under the basket where he can get those offensive rebounds for easy stickbacks and point-blank baskets," said forward Cam Thoroughman, who grabbed three rebounds in seven minutes of play. "That's just careless (on the part of the other team), because what he does is just sits there and works harder than the other teams and gets those rebounds and baskets. It was very important to keep him from doing that against us."
"He's the leading rebounder in the Big East, so you just have to try your best to keep him off the glass and not let him get any putbacks or anything," echoed Ebanks. "They're a great three-point shooting team, and when you give them second opportunities on offense, they'll pass the rebounds out and knock down 3's. We tried to get on the glass in order to limit that, too."
WVU sprinted out to a 17-2 lead against the Fighting Irish in part due to its effort on the glass. By the time Notre Dame weathered the storm, the Mountaineers were too far ahead for Mike Brey's bunch to realistically catch up.
"We came out strong knowing that we had to get on the glass," Ebanks explained. "That was probably the best start that we have had all season."
Although everything went according to plan against Notre Dame, the mission is far from being accomplished. Up next is second-seeded Pitt, which is playing not only for a trip to the Big East semifinals, but one of four No. 1 seeds in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
Leading the Panthers is sophomore center DeJuan Blair, the league's co-Player of the Year, who ranks just behind Harangody in Big East rebounding. Just as they did with Harangody and the Irish, the Mountaineers will have to make a cognizant effort of finding Blair as soon as the shot is in the air, which is undoubtedly easier said than done.
"It's hard to simulate," Thoroughman admitted. "We've gone up against a lot of good players, and one of the reasons that they are so good is that they are better than everyone else. That is definitely hard to simulate. In practice, when our teams go against each other, you just have to go as hard as you can to the boards to try your best to simulate what it's like. Really, that's the best that you can do.
"If I'm guarding Harangody, Thabeet, Blair or somebody like that, my purpose and goal is to let our other guys get the rebound, but keep (the opposing standouts) from getting them," he continued. "If he (Blair or Harangody) isn't getting it, then that makes our chances for getting the ball better."
Keeping Blair off the glass will not automatically result in a trip to the semifinals for West Virginia. It will, however, be a good start.