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WVU basketball: Defense not a strong point for Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Most teams spot a weakness fairly early in the season, either when it has cost that team a game or become impossible to ignore, and work like crazy so it isn't crippling.

What's driven Bob Huggins crazy 26 games into the season is his sixth West Virginia team is not like most teams. Following Monday night's not-that-close 71-61 loss at Kansas State, the Mountaineers coach said he'd never misjudged a team's potential as much as he had this one.

So much of what troubles the Mountaineers (13-13, 6-7 Big 12) is their trouble on defense.

"We have guys have breakdowns and when you're not any good you can't have any breakdowns," Huggins said.

Kansas State shot 50 percent in both halves and was the seventh opponent to shoot at least 50 percent against the Mountaineers this season. That happened six times in 33 games last season. It only happened 21 times in 143 games in Huggins' first four seasons.

"Let's be honest," Huggins said. "We gave them five layups against half-court defense in the first half and then another three or four in the second half ... layups that eight graders could make.

"I'm not insinuating anything about (the Wildcats). They did a great job, but how do they get those kinds of shots against half-court defense, against what has always been one of the better half-court defenses in the country?"

The Mountaineers are not near the reputation once so closely attached to Huggins and his teams, even at his alma mater.

They're No. 9 in the 10-team Big 12 Conference in field-goal percentage defense (43.4), No. 9 in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (35.4) and No. 8 in scoring defense (65.8 points per game).

A year ago, WVU let teams shoot 44.9 percent, the highest number under Huggins, and 32.3 percent from 3-point range while giving up 66.5 points per game.

In his first four seasons, Huggins hadn't had a team give up better than 42 percent shooting or more than 66.4 points per game.

These players have a hard time keeping dribblers out of the paint. Big 12 opponents - well-known ones like Baylor's Pierre Jackson or Kansas State's Rodney McGruder, or lesser-known ones like Texas Tech's Ty Nurse or TCU's Kyan Anderson - have gotten inside without much trouble.

"You don't have to have the best athletes to defend," WVU guard Juwan Staten said. "You've got to have the will to defend. I don't really think as a team we have the will to stop anybody from scoring. I feel like we have great athletes, people who should be great on-the-ball defenders, but it's a mentality. We don't have the mentality."

As such, the Mountaineers commonly lose track of the other team's known shooters and frequently in transition situations.

In conference play alone, Kansas State's Will Spradling, Texas Tech's Dusty Hannahs, Baylor's Brady Heslip and Oklahoma State's Phil Forte burned WVU on the perimeter. In non-conference play, Oakland's Travis Bader, Eastern Kentucky's Glenn Cosey and Purdue's D.J. Byrd did the same.

Bader, Heslip and Forte made six 3-pointers, Cosey made five and Byrd and Hannahs made four. Spradling made just two, but toyed with defenders with fakes and hesitation to get closer to the basket or to draw fouls and match a career high with 19 points.

"That's nothing but a mental lapse," Staten said. "When the scouting report says guys can't do anything but shoot and won't put the ball on the floor, that means you have to go out and make him put the ball on the floor."

So deep is the trouble that WVU's defensive problems have problems of their own. Kansas State's first three baskets were 3-pointers and Huggins had to cancel the game plan, which was to switch players when defending screens up top. The Mountaineers weren't switching and the Wildcats took advantage of open looks.

"All switching has done for us is give guys excuses and let them act like it wasn't their fault," Huggins said. "I told them we weren't switching any more. It's time to be accountable. I want to know who to blame."

That led to defenders getting beat in one-on-one situations. Dribble drives into the crowded paint would for some reason attract a second defender whose help left a shooter open.

"If you're guarding a shooter and all he does is shoot, you shouldn't be the one giving the most help," Staten said. "That's what our team doesn't understand."

Other times a defender inside or away from the ball would hurry over to help with a shooter on the perimeter, only to leave someone open much closer to the basket as the rest of WVU's team watched.

"I think we're kind of backwards," Staten said. "When it's a guy who can't really shoot, we're kind of hugging him. When we have a guy who can shoot, his guy is the one who is giving the most help."

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


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