West Virginia’s success the past two seasons (51 victories, two NCAA Tournament appearances) has been built on waves of pressure defense. The problem with waves is that they crash on the beach.
For the Mountaineers, particularly last season, the beach turned into quicksand. The frenzy and chaos they applied by playing up to 10 players a game often didn’t translate in the necessary calm and order needed on the offensive end.
“Our ball security was as bad as it’s been probably in the nine years that I’ve been here,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who is nine victories from reaching the 800 plateau. “We just can’t throw it away the way we did.”
Especially since joining the rugged and balanced Big 12 Conference, the Mountaineers have often struggled to score in their half-court offense. The solution has been to utilize a deep bench and push the pressure points of the opponent. When live-ball turnovers are created, WVU has been able to convert easy baskets.
The downside, especially last season, was that West Virginia gave as much as it took. That was especially evident in the team’s nine losses. In those games, WVU was outscored in points off turnovers eight times and committed more turnovers than assists in each game. The offensive numbers in those losses – 39.1 percent shooting from the field, 29 percent from 3-point range – underscored that the Mountaineers’ half-court offense was unable to overcome mistakes.
West Virginia, which finished ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press poll, ended the season with the thud of consecutive losses. In both cases, the Mountaineers’ ball security was derelict.
WVU committed 20 turnovers and was outscored off of turnovers 26-15 in an 81-71 loss to Kansas in the Big 12 tournament championship game.
“We’re shooting two free throws (to reduce the KU lead to two) and we miss them both,” Huggins said. “Then we stole it again and come down three on one and threw it to the one. That’s hard to do, but we did.”
The Mountaineers were victims of one of the bigger upsets of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. A No. 3 seed, WVU was stunned by No. 14 Stephen F. Austin, 70-56. The Lumberjacks deflected and reflected West Virginia’s defensive pressure, committing just seven while forcing 22; several were the live-ball variety that produced a decisive 29-4 edge for SFA in points off turnovers.
“They played about as well as they could play and we played poorly and that’s generally when upsets happen,” Huggins said.
This season’s top guards – juniors Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. and senior Tarik Phillip – combined for 230 turnovers in 2015-16. For comparison shopping, Iowa State senior guard Monte’ Morris has committed 123 turnovers in his career.
That trio needs to continue to bring the defensive heat – they combined for 158 steals, nearly half of the team’s total – while cutting down on giving it back.
Trimming turnovers is just one of Huggins’ concerns. West Virginia must replace three key contributors. Guard Jaysean Paige averaged 13.7 per game to lead the team in scoring and forward Jonathan Holton averaged 8.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Both exhausted their eligibility.
Devin Williams, a strong 6-foot-9 post player, averaged 13.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. He was on pace to become the fourth player in school history to total 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds but he skipped his senior season to apply for the NBA Draft (he went undrafted).
Huggins says he “doesn’t know” how he’ll replace the scoring and rebounding. But he’s more concerned about the boards than the points.
“The scary thing is this league has come down to last possessions a lot, or at least the last couple of minutes, so you’ve got to get hard rebounds,” Huggins said. “I think that’s primarily been one of the reasons Kansas has been so successful is they have guys that can go and get hard rebounds.
“(Williams) could do that for us. Jon Holton could do that for us, so we’re going to have to have other guys step up.”
The candidates include 6-foot-9 senior Nathan Adrian, who started 16 games and shot 40 percent on 3-pointers. Brandon Watkins, a 6-foot-9 senior, averaged just 5.4 minutes per game. Esa Muhammad started 34 games last season but Huggins believes the 6-foot-8 sophomore has great potential. Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 junior, also is a candidate to take over for Williams.
“Elijah is going to have to realize the potential he has,” Huggins said.
West Virginia’s blue-collar toughness on defense and boards helps make up for its shortcomings in other areas. But improving the turnover margin will be crucial.
In an alcove off the team’s practice court there’s a treadmill. It serves as the principal’s office in Huggins’ classroom.
“What I told them is we’re going to stop turning it over or we’re going to be the best conditioned team in college basketball history because they’re going to be over there on the treadmill,” he said. “That will make them concentrate more. It’s amazing when you start sending them to the treadmill how their concentration level improves.”