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WVU having trouble stopping opponents

MORGANTOWN -- Play in the 16-team Big East Conference and you'll see a variety of offenses.

Notre Dame prefers to burn the clock. Syracuse loves to run and lives off turnovers. Cincinnati shoots a bevy of 3-pointers. Providence does not. St. John's lives off dribbles. Georgetown loves the backdoor cut.

Yet Kevin Jones, who is making his fourth and final trip through the conference, sees the different opponents do the same things to West Virginia.

"A lot of screens and a lot of straight-line drives," the senior forward said.

"A lot of clear-out plays for the point guard to just kind of break us down and drive or dish it out to whoever is open."

Play in the 16-team conference and rank 15th in field-goal percentage defense and you'll have a variety of problems.

The Mountaineers are next-to-last in defending shots, a shocking reality in the defense-driven Bob Huggins Era and one that explains WVU's 2-7 record since starting 15-5 overall and 5-2 in the Big East.

"Our identity is defense," said senior Truck Bryant. "That's what we do. We play defense. When that goes bad, that makes everything else bad. And we're doing a terrible job defensively."

WVU (17-12, 7-9 Big East) is allowing opponents to make 44.6 percent of their shots in all games and 46.1 percent in conference games. In losing 7 of 9, WVU is allowing teams to shoot 47.4 percent - and that's pushed the season-long field-goal percentage defense up nearly a point.

Only DePaul, which at 11-17 and 2-14 has the worst overall and Big East records in the league, does a worse job (48 and 50.1 percent). That makes Tuesday's 7 p.m. game between the two at the Coliseum all the more interesting for the Mountaineers, who simply can't lose if they want to make the NCAA Tournament.

The Mountaineers have allowed five opponents this season to shoot at least 50 percent, including Marquette in Friday's 61-60 home loss. Three teams have done in the past six games, including Notre Dame (61.4 percent) two days before Marquette.

In Huggins' first four seasons, only 22 opponents in 133 games managed to make at least half their shots. In those previous four seasons, opponents shot 41.2, 41.7, 42 and 42 percent.

In the past 10 years, WVU's worst defensive field-goal percentage was 45.1 percent in 2005 and those Mountaineers still reached the Elite Eight thanks to their mystifying 1-3-1 zone and one of the country's best 3-pont offenses.

This team doesn't have a trusted defense and can't shoot. Out of 338 Division I teams, WVU is No. 242 in field-goal percentage defense and No. 299 in 3-point shooting percentage (30.7). The Mountaineers would prefer to do what others have done to them and spread teams out and run their motion offense and score on cuts, drives and the subsequent 3-pointers, but more and more now opponents clog the painted area and accept WVU jumpers.

"I don't have anybody who can shoot, so nobody spreads out," Huggins said. "Look at some of the guys we parade out there. I can kick as many in as what they shoot in. Why would you spread out?"

Yet this is what makes WVU's defensive difficulties so disturbing. The Mountaineers actually have a pretty good 3-point defense. Teams shoot just 31.7 percent against WVU, which is No. 71 nationally.

The Mountaineers are giving up 50.3-percent shooting on 2-point shots and in the past nine games allow 31.2 points per game in the paint.

"It's about being able to guard the ball better," Jones said. "The better you're able to guard the ball, the better everyone else is. Once a guy gets by you, as teammates we have to step up to help, which leaves us vulnerable to wide-open baskets."

More and more now teams try to get WVU in a position where it has to guard the ball. Offenses will set a high screen and challenge the Mountaineers to guard it without letting the screener or the dribbler dash to the basket for a score.

Other times a guard just backs the ball out and dares the defender to stop him without fouling him or allowing him to drive and score or drive and pass.

"To be honest, two years ago, every time one of us got beat, we knew somebody else was going to be there to help," Bryant said. "Now? We trust each other, but I don't think we trust each other enough."

The Mountaineers don't always rotate like they should to help on defense. They don't have a shot-blocker near the basket. The defender on the ball knows that and knows he can't afford a mistake because the opponent won't meet much resistance once he gets past.

A mistake defending the ball frequently results in someone going to the basket, so the defender can't play too close or take too many chances, which gives the player with the ball the advantage.

"It's really easy, actually," forward Deniz Kilicli said. "If you're in front of the guard and giving them resistance and kind of cutting them off, it's way easier for us to step up and help.

"They can't see us well and can't pass the ball to my man, so that means I can help. I'm way more comfortable to take a charge because they don't see anything if you're guarding the ball."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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