Zoning Out

The struggles WVU has had in the first half of games continues to mystify Mountaineer coaches and players alike. But against a Louisville team that relies on its pressure and 2-3 zone defenses to cause turnovers and create easy scoring opportunities, it will be that much more important that players know what to do early -- lest they fall too far behind to recover.

Even Da'Sean Butler, a battle-tested senior who has seen a lot during his time in Morgantown, doesn't understand exactly why his team has repeatedly had issues in the earlier parts of games.

"Honestly, I don't know if it's people coming out relaxed or lackadaisical or whatever the case is," said the forward.

"If I knew, I swear, I'd change it. But I really don't. For some reason, people just come out a certain way. Then, when they realize it's not working, we change. It just happens we change at halftime."

But sometimes, that is simply too late for West Virginia to be able to fight its way back into contention.

Notably, the team fell behind at Notre Dame so quickly and so decisively (the Irish held an advantage of as many as 22 points early in the second half) that even the solid play exhibited by the Mountaineers down the stretch wasn't enough.

One of the common denominators between that game, WVU's loss to Syracuse and its occasional struggles in other recent victories has been the use of a 2-3 zone defense by its opponents.

That is a theme that will likely carry over into Saturday's match-up with Louisville.

The Cardinals have used a 2-3 zone as their base defense in the half-court for much of this season -- a change-up of sorts, as most teams that apply pressure in the back-court continue to be aggressive on defense once the ball crosses the center stripe, typically playing a man-to-man defense not unlike what West Virginia employs.

It's a bit unconventional, but it's a strategy that, according to Butler, makes a lot of sense.

"It takes a lot of time for the ball to get over half-court," said the Newark, N.J., native of the problems presented by Louisville's pressure in the back-court. "Then, when you get it over half-court and everybody has sped up all over the place, they go into zone."

"If you get a team that goes from press to man, if everybody speeds up man-to-man, there's a good chance you might get a lay-up or somebody will be out of place. But with a zone, everybody is in a set spot."

"Now, you've got to figure out how to gap and do all those things against zone. It goes from making you go one speed to a totally different speed when you go over half-court. You've got to be ready for that and just be smart."

While WVU head coach Bob Huggins has been quick to blame poor shooting for some of his team's issues with zone defenses, Butler said the players haven't made things as easy on themselves as they could have.

"We're not making or taking a lot of easier shots, the shots we should be taken," he said. "Last year, we used to get a lot of lay-ups against zones and stuff like that. Now, guys don't get to the spots they need to for us to be successful in taking apart the zone."

Indeed, attacking the high post around the free throw line is the one common tactic most teams employ against 2-3 zones -- whether they are the more aggressive, extended style played by the likes of Syracuse or the more packed-in, passive style used by many others.

The inability of the Mountaineers to consistently get the ball to that area, which typically forces the zone defense into either allowing a relatively open shot from mid-range or collapsing on the ball in the middle (and, thus, freeing other players), has also been problematic.

"That's been our most repetitive error -- we don't get the ball in the paint in the first half against the zone," Butler said, before recalling the comeback against Notre Dame.

"The second half, for a little bit, we got to the middle. Everything started to go. We found open people for jump shots and step-in shots. We scored in the paint. Then they had to come out of (the zone) and had to go man. We have to do those things in the first half."

Louisville has tried to modify its version of the 2-3 zone to minimize the damage created by players attacking that spot on the floor. Butler explained that the Cardinals have gone to a bit more of a match-up look, with a player on the wing in the back of the zone following those who cut into the high post.

That allows the man in the back-middle of the zone to continue to stand his ground, disallowing easy interior passes for lay-ups. The trade off can be that the wings become more open and vulnerable for free outside shots.

"It's just a little different in how you attack it, but we'll find a way," Butler said.

Indeed, attacking both the zone and the pressure defenses will be of pivotal importance. Butler said that teams that have found success against U of L in recent weeks have done so by sufficiently cutting up the Cards' defenses, forcing head coach Rick Pitino to switch to a man-to-man approach.

Without Terrence Williams and Earl Clark (a pair of lottery selections in the 2009 NBA Draft), Louisville simply isn't long and athletic enough to match up with many teams in a straight man-to-man defense this year.

Beyond the struggles the Cardinals have defending their own goal by playing a half-court man-to-man defense, it also limits their ability to create turnovers and score easy baskets in transition -- a staple of Pitino's teams.

"Trying to get them out of the zone and out of the press would be awesome, because that's where they get a lot of their points from," Butler said.

The senior admitted facing a pressing defense is "annoying." But he said players can't allow that sentiment to make them become passive, as that is exactly what a pressure defense thrives upon.

"You've got to see what's going on, be strong with the ball and pass it," Butler said. "You can't beat a press dribbling the ball."

If WVU manages to avoid those pitfalls, it may make for an easier time against a U of L team that has forced the Mountaineers' offense to turn into what Butler called "turnover city" in the first half of every game he has been a part of against Pitino and company.

And, as Butler sees it, quicker starts are all that separates West Virginia from being the sort of team that is worthy of its No. 9 national ranking.

"When we figure out how we can fix that, and we still are trying to fix it as a team, I guarantee this team will be very successful," he said.

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