After scuffling defensively the last few seasons and losing a significant percentage of his roster to transfers, Bob Huggins has reinvigorated his team by going old school and turning up the pressure. The reborn West Virgina defense has chewed up every team on its schedule, most recently holding Oklahoma to 0.89 points per possession while forcing 22 turnovers.
It was a much needed change, as coming into the year West Virginia looked like a punchless squad with limited upside. Instead, the Mountaineers are 15-2 and on a track to an NCAA tournament bid, as well as a shot to compete for the Big 12 regular season title. Saturday, they come to Austin to face the 12-4 Texas Longhorns, who have lost two straight games.
The West Virginia defense picks up in full court defense, and attempts to deny, deflect, and steal every single pass. So far this season, this approach has worked, as the Mountaineers lead Division I in opponent turnover percentage, forcing a turnover in an amazing 31 percent of all possessions.
That turnover rate is a remarkable number. Not only is it the highest rate in the nation, but it is the highest rate by a considerable amount. The second highest opponent turnover rate nationally belongs to Eastern Kentucky (29 percent) and the third highest rate to Stephen F. Austin (26 percent).
West Virginia is not doing anything particularly fancy. For the most part, the Mountaineers play man-to-man defense, but they do it in Huggins' distinctive, crazy, and high energy style.
West Virginia denies every pass. Off ball defenders, even far away from the ball, typically play in a straight line between their man and the ball handler, as illustrated in the photo below. In this photo, the player with the ball is indicated by a blue arrow. This is a fairly usual way to play; it is the closest thing basketball has to playing press coverage and blitzing the quarterback on every down.
Playing defense like this distorts the game, making it quite unlike other games that you will watch. It is hard, and perhaps even pointless, to try to run plays or patterned offense against this sort of defense. It is hard to simply pass the ball. The offense's best bet may be to just attack the basket off the bounce. West Virgina distorts things further by extending its pressure man defense over the entire floor for the entire game.
So the story for any West Virgina game this season is rather straightforward. How an opponent deals with this pressure is virtually the only thing that matters; all other factors are secondary. West Virgina opponents turn the ball over a lot, shoot a lot of layups (only 35 teams in D-I have given up a higher percentage of opponent attempts at the rim than the Mountaineers), shoot some threes, and get fouled.
For Texas, this means that this game may be a chance for Isaiah Taylor to get back on track again, after missing most of the non-conference season due to injury. There is a way that this game plays out and turns into a one man layup line for the Texas sophomore point guard.
Or it may be a chance for Taylor to be crushed by the suffocating pressure, an option that is also in play.
On offense, the Mountaineers look a lot different from last year, and look a lot more like a more traditional Huggins group. Shooting the ball from the perimeter has not been a strength so far this season, as WVU averages under 31 percent from three point range, and doesn't take many shots from long range. What the Mountaineers do well is crash the glass and take care of the ball, thanks in large part to star point guard Juwan Staten.
In addition to the dynamic Staten, 6-7 junior forward Jonathan Holton has played exceptionally well so far this year. Both he and Devin Williams are monsters on the glass that need to be accounted for when West Virginia misses a shot (something that happens a lot). Another familiar face for Texas fans is senior guard Gary Browne. But WVU will change lineups frequently; to sustain his team's defensive intensity, Huggins plays 10 or 11 guys each game.
When combined with a turnover forcing defense, the effect of a low turnover rate and high offensive rebounding rate is that WVU takes 19 more field goal attempts than its opponents per game. That is a lot of extra shots, which is important for a team that shoots as poorly as the Mountaineers have.
This would be a typical place to put in keys to the game, or something similar, but it feels like forcing things to try to list multiple keys. There is one key -- how does Texas handle the pressure?
If this game turns into an ugly, sloppy mess, don't be surprised. It is how most West Virgina games have turned out this year. It is ugly by design.