When West Virginia jumped from the Big East to the Big 12 two seasons ago, it was seen at the time as a big take for the league. Coming off a run of seven NCAA tournament trips in eight seasons, including a trip to the 2010 Final Four, the Mountaineers were expected to have a big impact in Big 12 hoops.
But it hasn't yet happened. In its first two seasons in the conference, Bob Huggins' squad has finished in the bottom half of the league.
What Happened to the Defense?
A big part of the reason that West Virginia hasn't performed as well as expected has been a gradual erosion of the defense. Ken Pomeroy provides tempo free ratings for each Division I team's defense going back to the 2001-2002 season. From the 2001-2002 season through the 2010-2011 season, every team Bob Huggins' coached rated among the top 40 defenses in D-I. But Huggins' last three defenses have rated Nos. 83, 138, and 154.
The defensive drop off over the last three seasons can be almost completely attributed to the Mountaineers' poor field goal shooting defense. During the years where Huggins' defenses thrived, opponent effective field goal percentage was typically quite low. Last season, during Big 12 games, West Virginia allowed opponents to shoot the highest effective field goal percentage in the conference.
The interior defense has been particularly problematic in Morgantown. West Virginia has been getting clobbered inside the arc for the better part of the last three seasons. Last year, opponents' two point shooting percentage was 50 percent; it is hard to have a top level defense when you allow this high of a shooting percentage on two point attempts. The Mountaineers haven't been particularly good at limiting penetration, and for the most part haven't protected the rim well.
There might be an easy way to improve West Virginia's poor interior defense. That way is to find more minutes for 6-10 center Kevin Noreen. (Yes, this novel solution to improve the interior defense involves playing the biggest guy on the team more.)
When Noreen is in the game, the West Virginia defense has been solid over the last three seasons. When he has sat, the West Virginia defense hasn't been as good.
The West Virginia defense, when Kevin Noreen plays and sits.
|Year||Def PPP (On Floor)||Def PPP (Off Floor)||Def 2pt FG% (On Floor)||Def 2pt FG% (On Floor)|
The downside of playing Noreen is that he doesn't contribute very much on offense. But he isn't actively harmful at that end of the floor. In fact, the West Virginia offense was actually better last season while he was in the game. I won't argue that he is a big help to the Mountaineer attack, but he is hardly dragging them down.
Will the West Virginia Offense Be as Good as Last Season?
While the WVU defense struggled, the offense kept the Mountaineers competitive. Last season, Huggins' squad scored 1.11 points per possession Big 12 games, the fourth highest rate in the league. The key player that makes the West Virginia offense go is lead guard Juwan Staten, who is among the best returning players in the conference.
Staten's game has steadily improved since his freshman season at Dayton. He is limited in one key way that is often problematic for guards; through his first three seasons in Division I Staten hasn't shown much ability as a jump shooter. But he compensates for this weakness by being good at all other aspects of guard play. Staten takes care of the ball (WVU had one of the ten lowest turnover rates in the nation last year), breaks down the defense with his dribble to attack the rim and set up his teammates, and is a one man fast break. Juwan Staten today is what Texas hoops fans hope Isaiah Taylor can become.
A season ago, Staten was surrounded by three point shooters. Eron Harris, Terry Henderson, Remi Dibo, and Nathan Adrian were all dangerous from the perimeter, making the Mountaineers the second best three point shooting team in the Big 12. But after the season Harris and Henderson transferred out of the program, and Dibo chose to return to France to pursue a professional basketball career.
To help deal with all of this turnover, Huggins has brought in a number of junior college perimeter players who can shoot. JuCo transfer Jaysean Paige made 45 percent of his threes last seeason while scoring 21.4 PPG, playing for Moberly Area Community College in Missouri. Tarik Phillip is a Brooklyn native who spent last year hooping for Independence Community College in Kansas. In JuCo ball last season, he averaged 18.7 PPG, shot 39 percent from three point range, and swiped more than four steals per game. BillyDee Williams, a transfer from South Plains (Texas) Community College, also connected on 40 percent of his threes last season.
So with new shooters added to replace the three that left, the formula of surrounding Juwan Staten with long range gunners still looks to be in play.
Even if the newcomers are good, after losing so many key offensive players from last season it hard to see how the West Virginia offense will be better this year. That means that without a significant improvement on defense, West Virginia likely will again struggle to separate itself from the middle of the Big 12 pack.
If West Virginia does improve, that improvement may very well come from two talented sophomores; the previously mentioned Adrian, as well as 6-9 Devin Williams. The issue that held Williams back as a freshman was difficultly finishing around the rim. It is hard to imagine that Williams will continue to convert fewer than 50 percent of his layups and dunks this season.
Still, the problem for the Mountaineers is that they play in a very difficult league. Staten is one of the best players in the conference, but that just doesn't feel like enough.