As recently as late January things were going just fine for West Virginia. The Mountaineers were 15-5, and 5-2 in the Big East. It looked like Bob Huggins' team was on-track to be a strong No. 2 in the conference, behind only Syracuse. But then events took a turn for the worse.
On January 25 Huggins and company visited Madison Square Garden and got run off the floor 78-62 by a St. John's team that hasn't beaten another team not named "DePaul" since that night. Three days later the Mountaineers traveled to Syracuse, where a no-call on a play where it appeared Baye Keita should have been called for goaltending helped cement a 63-61 win for the Orange.
An off night, and a really bad break from the officials. Those two things will happen to a few hundred teams in Division I this year. But for some reason, West Virginia is giving the appearance of a team that's never really recovered from that three-day span in January. The Mountaineers have lost five of their last six, a brutal stretch capped off by an agonizing 77-74 loss at home to Louisville last Saturday. Heading into tonight's rivalry game with Pittsburgh, Huggins' team is 6-7 in the Big East and barely clinging to life in Joe Lunardi's latest projected NCAA tournament bracket.
How did things in Morgantown get this bleak this fast?
Huggins' defense has suffered a total collapse.
In their first seven conference games West Virginia held their opponents to 0.97 points per trip, a number that in this year's Big East marks a defense as above-average. But over their last six outings, the Mountaineers have allowed opponents to run wild, to the tune of 1.17 points per possession. If that level of defense were extended over the entire conference season, it would make this the worst defense in the Big East -- in other words, worse than Providence (1.13).
In those most recent six games, West Virginia's opponents have committed a turnover on just 14 percent of their possessions. Notre Dame is living proof that you don't have to force turnovers in order to play very good defense, but it's also true that when the other team records a shot attempt on no fewer than 86 percent of their possessions it does reduce your margin for error considerably. You better force a lot of misses and clean up the defensive glass. The Mountaineers are not forcing misses -- their last six opponents have made more than half their 2s -- and WVU's work on the defensive boards of late has been merely average. Right now offenses playing against West Virginia are operating in a near frictionless setting.
The problems on D are masking what is still a very good offense.
The traditional complaint of coaches is that when their team's shots stop falling on offense, the players stop exerting effort on defense. West Virginia can't use that excuse. The offense has been fine the last three weeks, and in fact the Mountaineers' offensive rebounding has gone from great to unreal. During this 1-5 stretch WVU has hauled down an incredible 45 percent of their missed shots. Huggins has said his team is "this close" (thumb and forefinger held up) to being a good team, and stats like that bear him out.
West Virginia isn't going to win any perimeter shooting contests, to be sure, but the way they crash the offensive boards they don't have to. Kevin Jones is still Kevin Jones. His team's struggles may hurt his Big East Player of the Year chances, but the larger point is that he's playing to the level of a Big East POY. The fact that the Mountaineers have been in so many close games this month while allowing teams to score 1.17 points per possession is a back-handed tribute to this offense.
The remaining schedule doesn't give the Mountaineers many breaks.
Aside from an upcoming home game against DePaul, West Virginia's embarking on a stretch that would be challenging even for a team hitting its stride, much less one looking for answers. Tonight's game at Pitt marks the first of three remaining road games. The other two are at red-hot Notre Dame and at South Florida. You might think the Bulls would be a welcome sight for a struggling team, but keep in mind USF has gone 6-1 at home this season in Big East play. Lastly, the Mountaineers will host Marquette, and Buzz Williams' team only happens to have one of the best offenses in the conference. If Huggins is right and his team really is "this close," they'd be well advised to close that gap right away.
In a way West Virginia should actually count themselves lucky. Two of their six Big East wins to date have come in overtimes (against Cincinnati and Providence). Flip those outcomes and you're looking at a team that's 4-9 in-conference. As it is, an 8-10 Big East record to finish the season has to be considered a real possibility. (If it comes to that, people will wonder aloud whether this team simply wore out. Jones and Darryl Bryant, this offense's co-featured scorers, both play more than 90 percent of the available minutes.) To avoid that fate, the Mountaineers need to start recording some stops on defense. Badly.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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