Defending The House

Free-throw shooting was one of the obvious causes of West Virginia's loss to Villanova on Monday, but it was another issue, one that has lingered for much of the year, that contributed more heavily to the defeat.

There's no arguing that WVU's 18-32 performance at the free throw line was a major body blow in what wound up as a five-point loss. If the Mountaineers could have made four or five more of those shots, it would have been in a position to make it a one-possession game coming down the stretch, rather than having to resort to fouling the smooth-shooting Wildcats. However, even with the huge discrepancy in shooting percentage, West Virginia could have been in a position to win, and likely would have, if it could have accomplished one task -- preventing Villanova's guards from penetrating into the lane. One coach not involved in the game noted that Villanova's guards spent more time in the lane than the Big East logo. That's a bit snarky, but like most witty observations, it contains the germ of truth.

It's not as if this is a new problem. WVU has struggled many times this year to stop opposing guards from getting inside. That assignment is pretty much job one for any guard on defense, because lane penetration leads to numerous options for the offense, and puts the defense in a bad position. When opposing ballhandlers get by their defender, they can take the ball to the basket and either shoot, drop it off to a teammate left open by defensive help, or kick it out to an open three-point shooter. All of those options were available at one time or another to Villanova -- and in fact, have been to many of the opponents West Virginia has faced this year.

Fortunately for WVU, it has been good enough, and intense enough, in other areas to negate that advantage. Help defense has been good at times, and defensive rebounding has snared many missed shots. Some teams simply weren't good enough to take advantage of that chink in West Virginia's armor. The squads at the top of the Big East however, are, and it was a defining difference in West Virginia's losses to Syracuse and Villanova.

The proof was evident even in s cursory scan of the box score from the Villanova game. The Wildcats took just eleven three-pointers among their 51 shots, but made five. Just about every one of those attempts were the result of drive-and-dish plays. The majority of their makes, though, were in the lane -- the result of penetration from their guards. They had 11 offensive rebounds, with several of those resulting in second chance points, and those too were the indirect result of penetration. When West Virginia's forwards were forced to switch off their men to help on defense, they gave up rebounding position, which led to some of those stickback shots. Sub Isaiah Armoood collected all four of his rebounds on the offensive end and turned them into eight big points.

WVU also struggles to defend against high screens in the middle of the court at times. The Wildcats used that tactic repeatedly, and when WVU couldn't fight through the screens, the Mountaineers were forced to switch, which left a big guy, such as Kevin Jones or Deniz Kilicli, guarding a Corey Fisher or a Scottie Reynolds in the open floor. That's a mismatch, of course, and it's not fair to expect those guys to defend some of the best guards in the nation one-on-one 22 feet from the basket. By forcing the switches, Villanova kept the Mountaineers from "going big" on offense against their smaller lineup as much as they would have liked, and thus dictated the conditions under which the game was played.

Of course, Villanova is one of the best teams in the country, so it's not as if this loss is a signal of a West Virginia collapse. The Wildcats may well possess the best group of guards in the nation, and excel in areas where WVU is weaker. The Mountaineers have a lot of their own weapons and strengths to deploy, and will still win games. However, in the NCAA tournament, guard play is often the key factor in deciding close games between talented teams, so West Virginia has to figure out a way to keep foes from penetrating at will. If that doesn't happen, the right (or wrong) opponent could send the Mountaineers home earlier than anticipated.

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