It's easy to make snap judgments and get discouraged when watching play such as that exhibited in the first half of West Virginia's setback in South Bend. The Mountaineers did almost nothing right, apparently didn't pay attention to the scouting report, and played without much passion in falling behind by 21 points just a few minutes into the game. It's also just as easy to take some solace in West Virginia's second half comeback, when the Mountaineers erased all but one point of that deficit before falling by two points. However, we're looking beyond the events of this game, and trying to evaluate where this Mountaineer team stands, and how far it can go. We're also trying to remove emotion from the equation, which can be tough to do in the wake of such a loss.
First, it should be noted that a loss or two don't kill a season. Although losing to Notre Dame won't help West Virginia's RPI in the long run, it doesn't mean there's no hope for the future. But there are lessons that must be learned, and problems that must be corrected, if WVU is going to contend for the league title.
First and foremost, the Mountaineers have to figure out a way to get off to better starts. WVU can afford to start slowly against teams like Rutgers and DePaul, but it can't spot most of the teams in the Big East a ten-point lead (not to mention 20). And it's not just a matter of making more shots. It's a matter of executing the offense, paying attention to the scouting report and doing what the coaches say.
Sometimes, of course, a team just comes out hot. That appeared to be the case in the Marquette game, where the Golden Eagles seemed to hit every shot, contested or not, and simply played an outstanding game. That's going to happen from time to time, and there's not much that can be done other than to not get rattled, continue to play hard and try to weather the storm. However, that wasn't the case against Notre Dame. WVU, despite facing an offense that can do just two things (throw the ball to Luke Harangody or shoot standstill threes) didn't cover anyone at the three point line and allowed the Irish more open shots than happy hour at a bar. Only one of Notre Dame's first seven three-point attempts was even remotely contested, and the Mountaineers treated defense like the Loyola Marymount teams of the 1990s. As a result, WVU was buried under a deficit that it couldn't quite make up.
The good news concerning this problem is that it can be corrected without any improvement in talent or performance. Playing defense is also a point of emphasis for head coach Bob Huggins. The bad news is that it hasn't been corrected yet. Listening to the scouting report and working hard on defense is simply a matter of attention and "want-to". Unfortunately, those characteristics haven't been universally evident so far this year, and nothing, not even loss a playing time, seems to be having the desired corrective effect.
The Mountaineers also have to figure out a way to attack 2-3 zones more effectively, because they are going to continue to see a steady diet of packed in zones. West Virginia's offensive rebounding prowess is something that opponents have to be conscious of, and playing a tight zone helps get more rebounders on the glass. It also invites West Virginia to shoot from further out, and the Mountaineers are falling into that trap. WVU launched 37 threes against Notre Dame's zone, and although WVU rallied on the strength of some hot second half shooting, it simply isn't consistent enough to make a living from long range. WVU has to get the ball into the high post against the 2-3, or work more dribble penetration from the wings, in order to break it down and get better shots and scoring chances.
The longer shots also can hurt WVU's offensive rebounding chances, as it's more difficult to predict and anticipate where the resulting longer misses are going to go. On close in shots, West Virginia can crash the glass and get to rebounds that come off relatively close to the rim. But rebounds from twenty-foot shots can carom anywhere, and can also help an opponents' transition offense. Several times against the Irish, WVU was caught with three or four players close to the basket when misses bounced far outside, and the result was a fast break with tw0- or three-man advantages going the other way.
Fixing this issue is a matter of patience and execution. WVU must swing the ball and reverse it once or twice to get the defense moving, then attack the resulting seams in the defense. It can't be content with just passing the ball around the perimeter or launching the first open 21-foot shot that presents itself. Those are items that have been emphasized in practice, but haven't always translated to games.
The news isn't all bad, and there were a couple of bright spots against the Irish. Dalton Pepper took another step forward in his progression, and even handled point guard duties for a short stretch. He's probably not ready to do so against pressure defenses, but against zones, if he can start the offense and knock down a couple of threes, he could earn more minutes and force foes to loosen their stranglehold on the lane. Dan Jennings didn't back down from the challenge of Luke Harangody, as he forced an air ball, took a charge and played with an aggressiveness that other frontcourt players lacked. Again, he's likely not going to play 15 minutes per game just yet, but if he can stand up to inside scoring threats and grab a few rebounds, he too could be part of the solution that West Virginia is seeking.
So, where do the Mountaineers go from here? A road game against USF on Wednesday probably won't tell us much, but nest Saturday's test against Syracuse looms as an important indicator. The Orange play the best 2-3 defense in the league (and perhaps in the country) so WVU will have to show it has learned lessons from its shortcomings so far this year. That's been a mixed bag to date, and it must get better quickly.