The short answer is both yes and no.
Yes, West Virginia is playing better than it did just a short few weeks ago. Some of that can be contributed to younger players like Emmit Matthews Jr. “figuring things out” on the fly. The true freshman has seen an impressive uptick in playing time lately, averaging just over 13 minutes and four points per contest over the past six games. It also means the Mountaineers are finding more and more ways to turn its opponents over.
And on the other hand, no, the Mountaineers still make too many mistakes to keep Bob Huggins happy. West Virginia averages an eye-popping 16.4 turnovers per game and boasts one of the worst turnover-to-assist ratios (.93) in the country.
But let’s talk about the good before continuing on with the bad.
Against Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon, the Mountaineers’ suffocating press defense made a noticeable difference against a young Panthers team.
“I thought we had much, much better intensity. We made some rotations finally and we brought the full-court pressure back out of the mothballs,” Huggins stated after the 69-59 win.
The Mountaineers forced a season-high 24 turnovers but committed 26 of their own, including 18 in the second half alone. The press defense is not all about turnovers, however. It also flusters the opposing teams’ ball-handlers and affords West Virginia more scoring opportunities.
West Virginia’s leaders are also starting to play like leaders. After falling in love with deep, contested jumpers, Sagaba Konate emerged as a dominant force in the paint against Pitt, tallying 16 points, nine rebounds, seven blocks, and only one turnover. Beetle Bolden has also fought through injuries to somewhat steady a constantly revolving backcourt. The Kentucky native poured in a team-high 18 points and four assists on Saturday.
But, naturally, playing Bolden 30 minutes per game is a risk. His lengthy record of injuries and willingness to sacrifice his body for the betterment of the team proves he needs other guards to relieve him.
Unfortunately, Huggins doesn’t yet fully trust his young group of point guards, including 6-foot-7 Jermaine Haley.
“I did until he started turning it over,” Huggins responded when asked if he liked Haley running the point. “He can see over the defense. Those other guys [Jordan McCabe, Brandon Knapper, Beetle Bolden] are really small. They gotta look under somebody’s arm to see open guys. . . . [I] like his length and he gives us another rebounder. But all of them, they got to stop turning the ball over. We turn it over at an alarming rate.”
Despite turning the ball over at a high rate, the Mountaineers have found a way to bolster another one of its strengths along the way. Blame it on poor shooting if you must, but West Virginia ranks eighth in the nation in offensive rebounds per game (14.89) .
“We gotta get more shots than our opposition. . . . [A]nd you can do that by turning them over and you can do that by rebounding. And we’ve been a very good rebounding team,” said Huggins.
The Mountaineers have a laundry list of problems to address before conference play opens. But if you look closely enough, there are also a collection of positives Huggins and his team can build on.