Pattern of Play

There's simply no way to understand, or make sense of, West Virginia's wildly varying play this year. The one lesson we all should have learned by now, however, is that no matter how poorly WVU is playing, it is rarely out of a game.

Exhibit number 1,342 in that regard was WVU's performance against Villanova in the Mountaineers' 68-66 overtime win on Saturday. The victory gave WVU a 13-5 record in the league (24-6 overall) and guaranteed them no worse than a number three seed in next week's Big East tournament. But before the sweet came the sour, and the play in the first half was a nasty as a serving of liver and escargot.

West Virginia's sins in the opening 20 minutes were many. The Mountaineers shot just 24% from the field, but that number was actually better than their performance from the free throw line, where they made just two of ten tries for an abysmal 20% success rate. What's worse, mental errors and bad decisions were even more prevalent. A partial list of those reads like mistakes from a middle school game:

  • Joe Mazzulla committed a foul 35 feet from the basket with seven seconds left on the shot clock, and Villanova's offense in disarray.

  • Devin Ebanks attempted to pick up a loose ball on the dribble rather than securing it with both hands.

  • Da'Sean Butler for all his great play, forced up a couple of three pointers early in the shot clock when his team desperately needed to push the ball inside.

  • Wellington Smith and Deniz Kilicli threw horrid lob passes that were easily picked off by defenders.

  • Truck Bryant continued to drive the ball into traffic with no clear idea of where he was going or what he was doing.

  • WVU had three airballs and three turnovers before it even got a shot inside the rim (that was at the 14:37) mark. It didn't score until nearly seven minutes had elapsed, evoking memories of a horrid trip to the Eastern 8 tournament where it didn't score during the first nine minutes against Duquesne.

    Despite all that, however, WVU trailed by "just" 13 points at the break – when it could have easily been down by 20 or more.

    "I told the guys at halftime the best thing about the first half was that we held them to just 27 points," head coach Bob Huggins said. "We've said it from day one – if we defend and rebound we have a chance and that gave us an opportunity to stay in the game."

    Huggins was short by two points (the Wildcats actually had 29) but the point remained valid. Despite the worst half of the season, West Virginia was still in the game against one of the league's best. And when the second half began with a Kevin Jones score in the paint, WVU changed its play to emphasize its strengths. Gone were the early threes and desperate shots with the clock running down, to be replaced by aggressive drives to the hoop and some clutch shooting from both the free throw line (Butler) and the perimeter (Smith).

    WVU shot a blistering (for it) 54% in the second half, and roared back defensively as well. Using a its 1-3-1 zone for the final ten minutes, WVU was able to limit the dribble-drive penetration that is a staple of the Wildcat offense and help keep them from putting together any lengthy scoring streaks.

    :We did a great job containing them," Huggins said of the defensive effort that held a sharpshooting Wildcat squad to just 39% from the field. "We went to the 1-3-1 to stop their penetration."

    Even will all of that, however, it took a miss of an open three-pointer by star Scottie Reynolds for the Mountaineers to escape with the win. That WVU could give up an uncontested three with fewer than seven seconds remaining on the clock and a full court to go is puzzling, but it simply served as a last reminder that there shouldn't be anything that surprises from this team at this point – unless it were able to put together a full 40 minutes of solid play. That would likely be the only thing left that would shock any observers of this year's team.

    In the end, however, there shouldn't be a great deal to complain about. WVU, despite its faults, sets a school record for Big East wins and finishes tied for second in the regular season standings in the toughest conference in the country.


    NOTES

    WVU will be either the #2 or #3 seed in the Big East tournament, pending the outcome of the Pitt-Rutgers game later today. A Pitt loss would put the Mountaineers into the #2 position. Syracuse is #1. Either way, WVU will play in the Thursday night session at Madison Square Garden. As the #2 seed, WVU would play at 7:00 p.m., while a #3 would put them in the 9:15 game.

    The complete pairings will be available following the completion of play today.

    * * *

    Butler's double-double of 21 points and ten rebounds came despite constant double-teams from the Wildcats.

    * * *

    It was feast or famine for the Mountaineers from the free throw line. Butler (13-14) and Ebanks (4-4) were solid, especially down the stretch where they combined to make their final 12 attempts. However, the rest of the team made just one free throw, with Kilicli (0-4), Smith (0-3) and Jennings (0-1) leading the misfire parade.


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