Commentary

New-look Eers improve on defense and rebounding

Originally Published: December 27, 2007
By Andy Glockner | ESPN.com

The last time we saw the West Virginia Mountaineers on a national stage, they were celebrating their NIT title in comically misspelled "WEST VIRGINA" championship T-shirts. This fall, while the shirts may no longer have been in fashion, disrespect still was. After former coach John Beilein took his precision offense to Michigan, not even Bob Huggins' homecoming and four returning starters from a 27-win team could lift WVU higher than 10th in the Big East preseason poll.

That felt wrong then and looks even more foolish now that Huggins has West Virginia at 10-1 and back into the Top 25. The surprise, though, isn't that the Mountaineers are playing good basketball. After all, Huggins now sits on 600 career wins after Saturday's pasting of Canisius. Rather, it's how they're playing. Gone is an identity shaped around Beilein's offensive cleverness. In its place is one forged by Huggins' insistence on ornery, in-your-face defense.

[+] EnlargeJoe Alexander
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesWest Virginia's Joe Alexander has been able to show off his athleticism in Bob Huggins' defense.

"Our focus is take away everything," said Joe Alexander, the team's second-leading scorer. "You shouldn't be able to do anything comfortably. We don't want them to be able to dribble once they get past half court comfortably. We don't want them to be able to pass it anywhere. That's tough for us to do sometimes, but we're going to get better at it. It's fun."

That's not what a lot of people expected to hear when Huggins inherited Beilein's collection of savvy shooters, but Huggins has been encouraged by how much enthusiasm, if not prototype skill, his players have brought to practices and games.

"We've got some decent athletes," Huggins said. "We just don't have as many of them as I'd like to have. But we've got some guys who are fairly athletic, so we're trying to do what we've always done defensively. We just don't have enough guys. I think if we had a couple more guys like the guys we have, the guys who are playing, we'd be fine. But we drop off dramatically when we get in foul trouble, size-wise."

So far, though, his guys have been delivering stifling defense. The following chart shows the change from last season.

West Virginia defensive stats
2006-07 Nonconference 2006-07 Total 2007-08 (through 10 D-I games)
2-pt FG % 48.4 51.2 39.7
3-pt FG % 25.7 30.3 29.4
TO rate 30.4 23.8 26.2
Defensive Floor % 36.3 44.0 35.2

(Turnover rate is the percentage of possessions in which you force a turnover. Defensive floor percentage is the percentage of possessions in which you allow at least one point. WVU is holding teams scoreless on almost 2 of 3 possessions, an outstanding rate.)

Overall, West Virginia's defense last season was effective, but it faded in league play because it was more gimmicky than solid. In nonconference play, against teams that rarely saw Beilein's man and 1-3-1 zone defenses, teams missed 3s and coughed up the ball at unsustainable rates. In Big East play, turnovers were way down and field-goal percentages went up, making the overall numbers look less formidable. West Virginia's 2-point field-goal defense -- the most accurate barometer of overall defensive quality -- was the worst in the Big East.

This season, the Mountaineers are markedly better at defending inside the arc, a product of its much more aggressive man-to-man defense. The Huggins philosophy is to clog passing lanes and choke off set plays, forcing opponents to freelance deep against the shot clock.

"Last year, riding that kind of Princeton offense, this is the kind of defense we hated to play against," said Alex Ruoff, the team's surprising leading scorer at 16.0 points per game. "We don't let you run your offense, so what it comes down to is one person trying to make a play and one of our players trying to stop them."

The improvement inside the arc and the relative stability in the other rates imply this philosophy has a much better chance of holding up come league play. A byproduct is that it also often leaves opponents out of good rebounding position. Last season, WVU was a poor defensive rebounding team, allowing offensive rebounds 35.2 percent of the time (251st in Division I). So far this season, the Mountaineers are at 29.8 percent (59th).

The improvement on defense wouldn't mean as much, though, if the offense wasn't performing at the same elite rate as the past couple of seasons. So far, though, the WVU offense actually has been more potent. While the five-out motion looks a lot like Beilein's system, Huggins said this scheme is more like that of his Akron teams in the late 1980s. There, Huggins coached the three best-shooting teams in school history, all of which shot better than 40 percent from behind the arc as well.

"At Cincinnati, we tried to spread people and drive it more because that's what we were good at doing," he said. "Here, we have more guys who can make shots, so consequently, we can spread people a little more. But we've always had back cuts, we've always had curls, we've always tried to put pressure on the rim."

The mix is working. The Mountaineers currently sport the country's best effective field goal percentage (accounting for the extra value of 3s) at 59 percent. They're also getting to the free-throw line more often and have become an above-average offensive rebounding team after years of near-concession in that category. All that adds up to the nation's best offensive efficiency rate (almost 1.24 points per possession; the national average is 1.00) and a scoring margin of plus-28.9 points per game. Yes, a lot of the nonconference schedule has been soft, but those are elite numbers against any level of competition.

Where does this leave West Virginia with just a couple of more tune-ups before Big East play? Statistically, at this point in the season, the Mountaineers look a lot like last season's Texas A&M team.

Both teams had huge margins of victory against lesser competition, lost a nonleague game to its best opponent (Tennessee for West Virginia, and UCLA for A&M, which also had lost at LSU) and had similar overall efficiencies and field-goal percentages on both sides of the ball. Both also fouled a lot defensively, forced a good amount of turnovers and did a good job holding onto the ball.

Texas A&M went on to challenge for the Big 12 title and was a possession away from the Elite Eight. Will these Mountaineers threaten for a Big East title or a Final Four berth? We'll see, but if they do get either, you can bet someone will make sure their T-shirts are spelled correctly.

Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at bubblewatch@gmail.com.