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WVU basketball: Defense helps Mountaineers end streak

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Bob Huggins doesn't have the answers to solve the problems his team is having on defense, but West Virginia might finally be the ones asking questions.

The Mountaineers, who are threatening to allow the highest shooting percentage under Huggins, kept an opponent under 50 percent shooting for the first time in four games Saturday and threw a wrinkle at TCU that helped end a three-game losing streak.

WVU played a matchup zone, which isn't new, and used a 1-2-2 structure, which the team has done before. Putting 6-foot-9 freshman Nathan Adrian atop the zone was something observers hadn't seen, and it looked like it. The Horned Frogs struggled to get the ball where they wanted to and the Mountaineers allowed just 29.6 percent shooting in the second half.

It was the best defensive performance in a half in Big 12 play and came at a good time. Six of the previous seven halves and eight of the last 11 had seen opponents make more than half of their shots "The biggest thing that does is take away their vision," Huggins said of Adrian topping the zone. "Whenever you have a 6-8 or 6-9 guy with long arms, even if they have an idea what they want to do, it's hard for them to be able to find people."

TCU had started to use ball screens and send the screener to the basket and the Horned Frogs were getting open jump shots or easy passes to the cutting screener for simple shots. The zone changed things, first making it harder to set up a mismatch with a screen and then making it difficult for the ball handler to see around Adrian and into the post.

TCU's 6-10 center Karviar Shepherd dropped off a screen and was posting up inside on 6-3 Eron Harris. TCU's 5-11 Kyan Anderson couldn't get a good look at where to pass the ball.

"Eron was fighting it, too. Eron did a pretty good job," Huggins said. "But the biggest reason they couldn't get it there was they couldn't see. With Nate out there with a 6-foot guard, it's hard for them to see around him or throw it around him."

The Mountaineers (16-13, 8-8 Big 12) could use gadgets like that. They're letting teams shoot 44.7 percent from the floor, the worst number in the Big 12. In conference games, WVU is last in scoring defense (77.9) and fieldgoal percentage defense (47.9).

The 2012 defense allowed 44.9 percent shooting and last year's team allowed 44.8 percent shooting. No other Huggins team allowed worse than 42 percent.

That will be WVU's focus again for Tuesday night's ESPNU game at Oklahoma (218, 10-6). The Sooners, who lost at the Coliseum last month in overtime, shoot 45 percent from the floor and are second only to Iowa State in scoring offense (82.3).

WVU has played different zones throughout the season. The 1-2-2 is a variation of the 1-3-1 and the matchup and point-drop zones have had success with different player combinations. The Mountaineers have even used a 2-3 at times, which is something Huggins has avoided in the past. WVU isn't good enough at any of them to play them extensively, but they're actually just disorganized enough that they're sometimes successful.

"Sometimes they don't know what we're doing," Huggins said, "because we don't know what we're doing."

The 1-2-2 with Adrian or any taller player up top is another twist to buy the Mountaineers some time, to keep opponents from picking at mismatches and, most importantly, to avoid what's been WVU's most glaring weakness in zones or man-to-man.

"We've had breakdowns," Huggins said. "We have so many young guys in there and we don't have a rim protector. Honestly, we're not great defenders on the perimeter. When we're supposed to trap a ball screen, we don't trap it. When we're supposed to string it out, we don't string it out. When we're supposed to push up hard, we hedge. We've had those kinds of breakdowns that you fix with experience."

Yet this late in the season, WVU has experienced a lot and hasn't combatted it very well. Again and again, WVU would play man-to-man with traditional matchups and do very little to keep the opponent from getting the ball where it wanted to, whether with a dribble or a pass.

Just recently, Texas kept driving into the paint for layups or passes to big teammates at the rim. Baylor's Isaiah Austin kept getting the ball in the post late in a win at the Coliseum. Iowa State's Georges Niang was able to get isolated against a big defender who wasn't fast enough to keep him out of the paint, where he'd shoot or pass.

"I think we're very much in a league where they kind of hunt and peck until they find something they can really exploit and they continue to try to exploit it and continue to go to it doesn't work anymore," Huggins said. "(Iowa State) did that. They did a lot of stuff and couldn't really get away from us, but at the end of the shot clock, who takes their center and puts him in the middle of the floor and says, 'Go make a play?' "I think that's the mentality of this league. They're going to go to the well as much as they possibly can."

 


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