Bob Huggins’ West Virginia Mountaineers teams have always been tough to play. They play a full-court, attacking defense that rarely allows their opponents a breath during the course of a game. This year, after a loss to open the season, that suffocating style allowed WVU to rip off 15 straight wins, before falling to Texas Tech and Kansas in back-to-back games last weekend/earlier this week. What went wrong? To find that out, we spoke to CBS Sports Network college basketball analyst Jim Spanarkel about what the Mountaineers have had trouble with lately and what they need to do in order to get back on track against a tough Texas Longhorns team this weekend.
CBS Local Sports: The Mountaineers had been red-hot this year until back-to-back losses to Texas Tech and Kansas, what went wrong in those two games?
Jim Spanarkel: People think that they have to be consistent and they do have to be consistent at the defensive end of the floor because not only do they press, but they keep the pressure on you all the time. So, when you look at the way they play, the defense will travel and they know that’s going to be consistent. What I noticed in the last game they played on Monday night against Kansas, is they were relentless to start in the first half, their defensive intensity was pretty consistent. But then in the the second half their defense kind of, it never slacks off, but let’s just say it lightened up a little bit. The intensity wasn’t as heavy as it was in the first half.
So, for a team that you want to be consistent, I thought they were a little inconsistent defensively from half to half. And then, overall, I thought because of that inconsistency, their offense became a little uncertain when they were going down the floor on the offensive end.
CBS Local Sports: What’s the biggest strength/biggest weakness you see in this year’s WVU team?
Jim Spanarkel: Well, for strengths, I think you have to go back to defense and Carter at the point because he is just terrific at setting a tone. Whether it’s after a made basket, or him coming down offensively and understanding when he has to get involved and look to score more often. So, he would be the catalyst in terms of why they tick on both ends of the floor.
(Sagaba) Konate, the big guy in the post, he’s just, in the beginning of the Kansas game he had five blocks in the first eight minutes and I was just really impressed at how he baited the guys into or challenged them into driving against him. He was able to block shots and also separate his body in order to avoid picking up fouls early to set a real tone on the defensive end. Give Kansas and Bill Self some credit, because they made some adjustments and didn’t go right at him. They started to go body-to-body a little bit more than they did in the first half, instead of trying to dunk over him and having him just jumping up and blocking shots.
The consistent part of their game is Carter and Konate is the first two things I focus on. Then, they also have a seasoned back-court with Carter and Miles. Now, with Amad coming back after three games, I think he’s going to give them a little punch in the arm both defensively but more so at the offensive end. He’s a guy who’s experienced, can score, and he’s a junior. So, it gives them a junior and two seniors that are pretty comfortable on the floor at the offensive end of the court.
CBS Local Sports: They play Texas on Saturday, who have a good front-court in Osetkowski and Bamba, but their guards have struggled. How much does that hurt the Longhorns chances in this game against the Mountaineers who love to pressure the ball handler?
Jim Spanarkel: I think that’s going to be very important. (Matt) Coleman is a talented guy, (Andrew) Young is a talented guy that they use, but he’s now out unfortunately due to the leukemia diagnosis. Coleman is a freshman and starting this game I think it’s important for Coleman to make sure that he controls his mindset in terms of attacking. Going into West Virginia, if anybody is shocked or surprised that West Virginia is going to come full court and throw different variations at you, then obviously you didn’t do your homework.
The other part of it though, is what do you do and how as a freshman do you handle that. Because, it’s probably the first time you’ve seen different types of blitzes coming your way. The key for Coleman will be to make sure he doesn’t try to make too many big decisions with the basketball. If one guy is open, get rid of the ball. Make it snap, make it hop, so that you don’t get caught up trying to do too much in the back court.
CBS Local Sports: A pair of other games on CBS this weekend, one featuring the #1 team in the country in Villanova taking on UConn. We’ve only seen ‘Nova lose once this year and it came at Butler against a Bulldogs team that seemingly couldn’t miss. Can UConn replicate that formula? If not, how do they give themselves a shot to win?
Jim Spanarkel: What they need to do, once again, going in against Villanova you have to know that they’re very good at both ends of the floor and they’re probably going to run at you in terms of making a 10-2 run or a 15-5 type of run. I had Connecticut against Wichita State and one of the things about Connecticut is, they were kind of lost a little bit in the beginning of the season trying to find their personality. Now, they’ve won three out of their last four and I think it really comes back down to the play of (Jalen) Adams and (Christian) Vital in the back court and also (Terry) Larrier. They have to be confident at the offensive end of the floor.
When I watched them against Wichita State, they had periods where they gave me a feeling that they were uncertain of what they were trying to accomplish at the offensive end. Their decisions weren’t very good and when you play against a Villanova team, you’d better be ready to make good decisions. Different than a West Virginia defensively, but similar in that you know they’re going to play all 40 minutes at a high level of defensive intensity so you have to be aware and protective of the basketball to make sure that you’re getting good shots.
CBS Local Sports: There’s some talk about this year’s Wildcats team being even better than the one that won the title two years ago, do you agree with that?
Jim Spanarkel: That’s a great question and I’m not so sure as of yet. I know they’ve been very consistent. When you go 16-1 and the only team you lose to is Butler which seems to have their number, you’re pretty good. I just don’t know if, compared to that other team, where the depth is in terms of are they as good. They’re probably within 90 percent of that team. The fact of the matter is that (Jalen) Brunson is a key there with the way he handles the ball and his decision making and the way he is basically a coach on the floor is very important.
Phil Booth is another guy who has to be consistent in terms of going night in and night out. And, their bigs are pretty good. Are they as good as that team? I don’t think so, but it’s hard to say because I think there’s a lot of parity this year too with all of these teams knocking each other off in the Top 10. So it’s hard to say right now if one team would be comparable to that team from a couple of years ago.