A look at West Virginia's defensive statistics don't seem to show any major problems. Overall, WVU is allowing teams to make 43% of their shots, which is o.k., if not great. The Mountaineers hold a +7 rebounding margin, have forced 60 more turnovers than their foes, and have blocked 114 shots. Add that to the aggressive manner in which Huggins' teams typically play on the defensive end, and from the high-level view, WVU seems to be upholding that reputation. However, as with many statistical measures, these simply don't tell the whole story. There are a few areas in which West Virginia simply doesn't measure up, and those items have been key in just about every Mountaineer loss this year.
The first, and most obvious, is defending against opposing dribblers. WVU simply doesn't have a guard that can stop opposing ballhandlers from penetrating into the lane. When that happens, as we've discussed several times before, good things are going to happen for the offense. As defenders rotate to help, the player they are guarding is usually left open, and guards with solid skills, such as those of UConn, Villanova and Syracuse, are going to find them for easy scores. Unfortunately, that's just part of West Virginia's defensive issues.
The second is West Virginia's continuing lack of discipline in reaching and committing fouls that leave the coaching staff frustrated beyond repair. Any team that defends as aggressively as WVU is going to foul – that's the tradeoff for putting pressure on opponents. However, the Mountaineers also commit way too many dumb fouls. Add those into the ones you're willing to live with, and you get parades to the free throw line for the opposition, such as 42-attempt march that UConn enjoyed on Monday.
The examples are almost too ugly to watch. West Virginia committed back-to-back fouls in the second half against the Huskies that put them in the bonus with more than ten minutes to go in the game, and both of them were more than 30 feet from the basket. The Mountaineers foul jump shooters, reach and play defense with their hands instead of their feet, and make soft fouls that lead to opposing three-point plays. Add them all up, and the advantage it gives to opponents can be overwhelming.
A look at the free throw statistics bears this out. Of UConn's 42 free throws, 26 came from its starting guards. That's right – 26. And that was without any intentional fouling at the end of the game.
That's not the only issue on defense. Secondary defenders are making more errors as well, and those seem to be increasing, not decreasing, as the season winds down. The first issue is the taking of charges. Under John Beilein, WVU learned to take charges in its 1-3-1 defense, and that skill has carried over to Huggins' squads. However, that is is now being overcooked, and as a result players are moving into and under foes as it tries to draw charges – often in hopeless situations. There's not much doubt that officials that have seen West Virginia before know this, and thus are more on the lookout for the late step-in. WVU got just a pair of charging calls against UConn, while giving up several blocking fouls that either sparked three-point plays or sent shooters to the line.
This isn't to say that setting up to take a charge isn't good defense. It is. But would you rather have John Flowers trying to take a charge, or using his great leaping ability to try to block a shot or distract the shooter? WVU has to be smarter when it tries to draw the charge. If it's not in position to do so, players need to avoid trying to buy the call – something that is happening less and less as the season progresses.
Another problem for secondary defenders, most notably forwards, is the attempt to block shots from off the ball. In the case where a defender is rotating to pick up a penetrator, there's no problem with that if the defender gets close enough to really pressure the shot. However, in far too many cases recently, that second defender is about two or three steps away from the shooter in the lane – out of position to have a really good chance to block the shot. But those defenders have been doing that anyway, and the result is that they take themselves out of rebounding position. West Virginia gave up several offensive rebounds to Seton Hall for just this reason, and it's another problem that has grown, not lessened, as the season has wound down.
The lesson here is simple. Don't chase blocked shots. If you're on the ball, certainly go up and challenge shooters that are close to the basket. If you are rotating over, however, weigh the chances of the block against the loss of rebounding position, and act accordingly.
WVU also faces other issues in developing defensive consistency and eliminating these issues. The biggest of these is the rotation and the abilities of its players. It's no secret that Truck Bryant, Deniz Kilicli and Casey Mitchell have defensive issues, but they have to play in order to help West Virginia score, or at least give it the potential to do so. When they are replaced by players that are better defenders, the offense takes a hit. That's not meant to single out any one player as the problem, because that's not the case. It's simply to point out the challenges faced by the coaching staff in trying to put a team on the floor that has enough scoring threats to get to the 70-point per game mark, but is also able to hold opponents below that level.
The frustrating thing about these defensive problems is that some of them are correctable without any increase in talent level. Many of the defensive errors the Mountaineers make are mental. Huggins noted, for example, that his team gave up two back cuts for lay-ups while playing a triangle and two zone. With a defender on each block, there should be help available to stop an opponent that beats his man-to-man coverage, but that didn't happen. Positioning errors – clearly mental mistakes – cost WVU. And that's just one of the number of brain farts that put a mark in the loss column.
The bright side to all of this is that these problems are correctable. Clean the mental mistakes up, and WVU is good enough to overcome its other problems and win games. However, It hasn't shown the ability or inclination to do so, and the clock is ticking on West Virginia's season.