After losing two in a row, the Texas Longhorns are eager to get back to winning games, and will have their first chance tonight against 20-5 West Virginia. The game gets an early tip time, starting at 6 PM CST, and airing on ESPN2.
While Shaka Smart's men are on a two-game losing streak, there is really no cause for alarm. Both of those loses came on the road to strong opponents, and both were rather competitive. The Longhorns didn't play quite well enough to win at Oklahoma or Iowa State, but in both cases they only fell short by a few possessions. Sometimes that's just how it goes.
This is the second time that Texas and West Virginia have met this season, so rather than rehashing Cody's earlier preview, I just recommend that you go and read it for yourself.
With Jonathan Holton back from his suspension, the Mountaineers basically should be at full strength. Other notable players include likely All-Conference forward Devin Williams and senior guard Jaysean Paige, who can put up a bunch of points fast.
Reviewing the last meeting
The last time these two teams met, Texas won a foul-filled game in Morgantown. The Longhorns won by protecting the ball against West Virginia's all-out pressure, and by getting to the free throw line 30 times. West Virginia kept things close by relentlessly attacking the offensive glass, grabbing 24 offensive rebounds. Neither team could hit a shot. It was not a beautiful game.
Since that game, the Mountaineers have continued to play well, losing only twice, with both losses coming on the road to strong opponents. Bob Huggins' team is still doing what it always does, forcing turnovers and going to the glass (the Mountaineers currently lead all of D-I in both offensive rebounding rate and opponent turnover percentage). They also foul and draw fouls at a very high rate.
Beating the pressure
I post this picture frequently, but I am going to do it again, because it helps to explain just why West Virginia forces so many turnovers, and why contests with the Mountaineers don't resemble most college basketball games. While so much attention is placed on West Virginia's full-court press, it is important to point out that the team's entire approach to defense is designed to pressure the opponent and disrupt an opponent's offense. The photo below shows the Mountaineer half-court defense, which as you can see places nearly all defenders in a direct line between their man and the basketball. Bob Huggins is essentially daring the opponent to try to beat him off the dribble, and threatening each and every pass on the floor.
This is the sort of halfcourt defense that West Virginia will likely play for most of the game, until at some point Bob Huggins switches things to his 1-1-3 zone that he has been using as a change up for many years.
In full court, the Mountaineer defense isn't all that different. WVU extends this basic man-to-man defense over 94 feet, and will look to double the ball when good chances present themselves.
Texas handled the West Virginia pressure with seeming ease earlier in the year, adapting an approach that Shaka Smart had seen used effectively against his own teams at Virginia Commonwealth University. The Longhorns played with multiple ball-handlers, primarily Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix, and brought the ball up the floor slowly.
It turns out that in certain key ways, the WVU press resembles the man-to-man pressure that Shaka Smart has run in past seasons. A key objective of this defense is to speed up the dribbler, and get him going a little out of control. An out-of-control dribbler is more susceptible to the double team, while a player under control can often eat the double team alive, finding the open man before the trap closes.
Perhaps the most famous example of this strategy being deployed against Smart's VCU team came in the 2013 NCAA tournament, when the Michigan Wolverines destroyed the vaunted Ram press. In that game, Smart's press mostly took the ball out of Michigan star Trey Burke's hands, and so John Beilein had teammate Tim Hardaway do much of the ball handling. But that was the less important part -- the more important part was that Beilein had his ball handlers pause briefly before dribbling up the court. They kept it cool, brought it up under control, and broke the pressure.
I don't know what the inspiration was for Smart's two-guard, slow-it-down approach to beating the West Virginia press a few weeks ago. It may have had nothing to do with an NCAA game from three years ago. But it certainly reminded me of just that as I watched. A defense designed to speed up the ball handler will not be quite as fierce if the ball handler refuses to take the bait.
At a basic level, beating West Virginia comes down to handling the pressure, and then attacking off the dribble in the half court. If things go well for Texas, it could mean a lot of lob passes to Prince Ibeh behind the defense, after a penetrating guard has attacked the paint. And it will mean a lot of trips to the free-throw line for the Horns.
This game will likely end up being a very important one at the season's end. On paper, this appears to be a toss up. If Texas wins tonight it goes a long way towards locking down what appears to be a likely NCAA tournament bid, and gets us more focused on using future wins to affect seeding.
A loss isn't tragic, but this is the sort of game that a team really wants to win to get the best situation in the post season.