On The Defensive

Coming into the season, WVU head basketball coach Bob Huggins expected that his offense would be more powerful than in his previous two seasons at the helm. However, seven games into the campaign, its again the defense that is setting the tone for his squad.

Of course, any Huggins team is going to play defense. It's one of the linchpins of the future Hall of Fame coach's career. Coppin State head coach Fang Mitchell was the most recent to note that anyone facing a Huggins-led squad is going to see an intense defensive effort. What hasn't been present, however, is the sort of consistent offensive play to complement the work on the other end of the floor.

The reasons for some of the struggles are varied. Against Duquesne, West Virginia didn't run its offense well, as one-on-one play and "get mine" shots overrode any flow. The Coppin State game, with Devin Ebanks and Casey Mitchell on the bench, featured much more rhythm, but the Mountaineers simply couldn't get any shots to fall. At this point, it doesn't appear that there's anything wrong with the offense that can't be corrected, but it will take complete buy-in by everyone on the team (something that Huggins himself emphasized after the Duquesne contest), in order to make it a reality.

In the meantime, defensive play, an early season concern, has improved. And it's not just in Huggins' favored man-to-man and match-up schemes. West Virginia unveiled a 1-2-2 press against the Eagles that certainly caught them off guard, and showed that the Mountaineers aren't limited to just one defensive style.

There are a couple of different ways to build pressing defenses. One is with quick guards who can hound opposing ballhandlers and create pressure on the ball. Another is by deploying players with good length that can get into passing lanes and deny foes clear paths to move the ball. WVU's roster is more suited to the latter, although Joe Mazzulla is certainly an accomplished on-the-ball defender that can deny his assignment a path to the basket. With players such as John Flowers and Devin Ebanks at the point of the 1-2-2, and backside length in Kevin Jones and Dan Jennings, the Mountaineers have the best fit of personnel under Huggins to play defense beyond the halfcourt line.

Of course, deploying a press against Coppin State is one thing. Doing so against Villanova or Syracuse is another. Savvy ballhandlers aren't going to dribble into traps or pick the ball up at the first sign of pressure, so complete judgment on the effectiveness of WVU's pressure defense will have to wait. However, the fact that the Mountaineers have even shown the defense, which was worked on at times last year but never deployed, shows that it's at least ready for a prime time tryout.

That's not the only defensive addition in the bag, either. WVU can still drop into the 1-3-1 defense, a holdover from John Beilein's time at West Virginia. The Mountaineers have used that set in a couple of games this year, most notably in the 76 Classic in Anaheim, and were also supposed to drop into that set out of the press against Coppin State. That was less than a success, according to Huggins, who joked that most observers might not have recognized that fact because it was something of a mess. Again, though, it's another look that could be seen in future games.

There's more in West Virginia's repertoire as well. Although it hasn't been seen this year, the Mountaineers have worked extensively on a 2-3 zone, and could well show that against a team that has an interior-oriented offense. The 2-3, of course, is also an excellent springboard for playing a match-up zone, which gives Huggins even more options when trying to slow opposing offenses. That, in the end, is the goal.

"On defense, we want to take you out of what you want to do," Huggins explained simply. "Then you have to ball screen and try to go one-on-one."

Taking an opponent out of its comfort zone, denying it the ability to run its offensive sets and get shots, and reducing it to an off-the-dribble attack, is the key to any defense Huggins will deploy. Of course, the Mountaineers won't be able to run all of these defenses against every opponent. There are some teams that handle the press well. Others would match-up well against a 1-3-1. But with an increasing number of defensive options available, it looks, at least for now, as if West Virginia will continue to be a team that relies on defense first to win games.

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