In basketball, the goal on defense is to force opponents to take shots that are as difficult as possible.
While the best-case scenario would be that the other team does not get a shot off at all, that is basically impossible to achieve over 40 minutes of play. The next-best option is forcing tough shots. Unfortunately for West Virginia, a team that not so long ago was lauded for its tough defense, the Mountaineers are struggling to put up even a paper-thin resistance this season.
“We can’t guard, we don’t guard,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said after the team’s loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday. “We tried to play some matchup to kind of camouflage the fact we can’t guard and it worked for a while but of course everybody watches film, like we do.”
WVU’s defense has been inconsistent at best this season. The Mountaineers are in the bottom half of the Big 12 in points allowed (72.1) and opponent shooting percentage (44.3%) but are fourth in opponent 3-point percentage (32.4%).
“It’s kind of been like that the whole season,” point guard Miles “Deuce” McBride said Saturday. “We’ve all said that once our defense gets together it’s going to work out, but so far we’ve really not have done that all 40 minutes. When we don’t shoot it well, you’ve got to rely on your defense and obviously, we haven’t done that the whole year.”
WVU’s defensive struggles were especially apparent against Oklahoma State over the weekend. Despite missing two of their top players, Cade Dunningham and Isaac Likekele, the Cowboys still scored 85 points on 57.9% shooting. OSU was able to exploit WVU’s interior defense, scoring 50 points in the paint and shooting 24 of 34 on layups and dunks.
“Staying in front of the ball is also something we take pride in and we didn’t do that today,” senior Taz Sherman said. “They had easy driving lanes to the basket so they scored easy buckets.
“It’s not like we just don’t work on those things in practice, we work on those in practice,” Sherman continues. “Sometimes we get into the game and your footwork gets bad, you open up and give somebody a straight line drive instead of sending them to the baseline. That’s something we need to cut down on.”
“It’s something we just haven’t been good at all year,” McBride added. “I can’t tell you why. Our help defense has been our weak point. Everybody’s going to get beat, it’s college basketball, the difference is help defense.”
The problem, according to Huggins, is that WVU does not have an interior player that can block shots this season. Junior forward Derek Culver plays more minutes in WVU’s frontcourt than anybody but ranked 16th in the conference with only 20 blocks.
“We don’t have a shot-blocker, we don’t have Sags [Sagaba Konate] back there, we don’t have Elijah [Macon] back there, we don’t have Devin Williams back there for that matter,” Huggins said.
Huggins said it is hard for Culver, or fellow forward Gabe Osabuohien, to be more aggressive trying to block shots because he does not want to open them up to taking more fouls than they already do.
“Why would you tell someone to foul somebody?” Huggins asked. “Derek’s in foul trouble enough, Gabe’s in foul trouble enough. We’re constantly trying to keep those guys on the floor and they’re in foul trouble. We tried to play Seny [Ndiaye] in there, Seny’s a better shot blocker than either one of them, he didn’t block a shot either. That’s a different game if Sags is in there, but Sags isn’t here.”
Konate was a prolific shot-blocker during his three seasons as a Mountaineers. He holds the WVU career record with 191 blocks, blocking 116 shots in the 2017-18 season alone. No Mountaineer has blocked more than 32 shots in a single season since then.
West Virginia and Oklahoma State will rematch in the quarterfinal round of the Big 12 Conference Tournament later this week. WVU and OSU will tipoff at 11:30 a.m. Thursday morning from Kansas City.