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WVU basketball: Defense fails Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Juwan Staten hadn't been asked a question, but after 28 games and now three straight losses West Virginia's point guard knew what was coming.

"I can probably answer every question you have with one word," Staten said after an 83-66 loss to No. 15 Iowa State. "That's 'defense.' We're not playing defense.

"We can talk about the arenas we're playing in. We can talk about the players we're playing against. We can talk about us not making shots or being outrebounded or being young. We can talk about all of that, but the main thing is we're not playing defense."

He's right and everyone knows it. The Mountaineers rank last in the 10-team Big 12 in field-goal percentage defense (44.8 percent). Misery gets company Saturday when WVU (15-13, 7-8 Big 12) plays host to TCU (9-18, 0-15) at 1:30 p.m. on Root Sports. The Horned Frogs, who have lost 15 straight games, are No. 9 in the league in shooting defense.

Eight of WVU's opponents have shot at least 50 percent in a game, though that can happen on occasion when a team plays like WVU with early offense and extra possessions and no interior presence. The Mountaineers have a coping mechanism built into their team and rely on the 3-point shot, the most 3-point baskets and the second-highest 3-point shooting percentage in the Big 12.

Yet WVU is 1-7 when the opponent shoots at or above 50 percent. The Mountaineers have only shot above 40 percent twice and never better than 43.4 percent in those eight games. They needed 81 points - 35 from Juwan Staten and 29 at the free-throw line - to beat Kansas State and its 50.6 percent shooting, but haven't scored more than 75 points any other time the opponent has made more than half its shots.

"When we're not playing defense, we've got to outscore the other team," Staten said. "We're a very dangerous team when we're hot. When we're cold, we're not that good. We really need to pick up our defense. If we can guard teams and keep them from scoring, I feel we can tough out some of these games.

"But we come down and have to fight for everything to score a basket and then we go back on defense and end up giving up two early in the shot clock. You can't win like that."

WVU spent most of Wednesday's loss fighting momentum and erasing deficits. The Mountaineers were down 28-14 early and six points at halftime. It was an 11-point game early in the second half and then a four-point game a short while later. Again and again, WVU would get close, only to give in to repeated scores by the Cyclones.

The Mountaineers are 0-9 when they fall behind by at least 10 points in a game. They haven't made up a deficit larger than seven points in a win.

"It's easier to go bucket-by-bucket and be patient," guard Eron Harris said. "You're not going to get all your points back in a minute. Comebacks aren't made in a minute. They're made through games and halves. We have the style to come back. We need to sometimes slow it down, which is probably hard for us."

WVU has played in tough venues and against all-conference and Big 12 player of the year candidates. It's been without starting guard and third-leading scorer Terry Henderson the past two games and might be without him again against TCU.

But they also know Henderson wouldn't fix everything that's wrong.

"We have to be able to stop them, and specifically we have to stop them inside," Harris said. "That includes all of us, not just the post players."

WVU has let each opponent in the three-game losing streak shoot better than 50 percent, but the defense has also made it easy on the other team. Iowa State made 33 baskets Wednesday night, 23 of which were in the paint. Baylor had 19 of its 32 baskets in the paint and Texas had 23 of its 33 in the paint. WVU has been outscored 130-50 in the paint in those three games.

Part of that comes from having no one old or big enough to catch the ball near the basket and score, but also because the perimeter and post defense has granted easy access to the basket. WVU's top four interior presences are freshmen Devin Williams, Brandon Watkins and Nathan Adrian and junior college transfer Remi Dibo. Adrian and Dibo are better suited as perimeter players and 6-foot-10 junior Kevin Noreen can't stay in games because of troubles with fouls or matchups.

Most of WVU's players, including a veteran like Harris, who is still just a sophomore, haven't quite mastered defense and aren't near where coach Bob Huggins wants them to be.

"I would honestly say defense is a mentality," Staten said. "You can't just go out there and be good on defense because somebody tells you to play defense. You've got to want to play defense. You've got to take it personal when someone scores on you. You've got to make it your job to make sure the man you're guarding doesn't score on you. I don't think we're there as a team."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter @mikecasazza.


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