After missing out on the NCAA tournament in each of the last two seasons, No. 5 West Virginia changed things up with regards to the way they played. Head coach Bob Huggins took advantage of his team’s depth and athleticism by going with full-court man to man pressure, with the team looking to cash in on resulting turnovers in order to compensate for their perimeter shooting issues.
The change has worked, as not only did the Mountaineers return to the NCAA tournament but they’ve also headed to the Sweet 16 after beating No. 4 Maryland 69-59. Sunday night West Virginia managed to force 23 turnovers against a Maryland team that played the final eight minutes of the game without injured point guard Melo Trimble (head injury).
Trimble was shaken up on two separate occasions in the second half, with the first coming on a screen set by West Virginia forward Nathan Adrian (yes, it should have been called a foul) and the second by way of a knee to the back of the head from a teammate after falling to the floor. While the Terrapins did have issues with turnovers while Trimble was on the court, it got even worse once the star freshman left the game. Maryland finished with 23 turnovers, which were converted into 26 points by West Virginia.
On the season West Virginia forces a turnover on 28.1 percent of their opponents’ possessions, a mark that ranks first in the country, but they were even better against Maryland as the Terrapins finished with a turnover percentage of 34.3 percent. Dez Wells struggled, committing eight turnovers, with Jake Layman having five himself. Despite having three turnovers himself Trimble was the player most capable of dealing with the West Virginia pressure, and losing him put Maryland in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.
The other key for West Virginia was their work on the offensive glass, as they rebounded 36.8 percent of their misses with Devin Williams grabbing three of the 14 offensive rebounds and three other players (Gary Browne, Jonathan Holton and Tarik Phillip) grabbing two apiece. Williams led four players in double figures with 16 points and ten rebounds, and as a team West Virginia scored 16 second chance points and 30 points in the paint.
And while Juwan Staten scored just six points, he also dished out six assists for the Mountaineers. Before the season began it was assumed that the senior guard would have be both the primary playmaker and scorer for this group. But while they still need Staten to score, others have stepped forward and the defense has had an impact on where West Virginia gets its offense as well.
West Virginia shot just 40 percent from the field against Maryland, but their ability to create opportunities via turnovers and offensive rebounds more than made up for that.
Next up for the Mountaineers is No. 1 Kentucky, a program West Virginia ran into in both the 2010 and 2011 NCAA tournaments. Obviously this will be a tough matchup for for Huggins’ team, as they’ll need to make shots at a higher rate than they have against the Wildcats.
To counter that they Mountaineers will attack relentlessly for 40 minutes, and while other teams do use full-court pressure you’ll be hard-pressed to find one as physical and aggressive as West Virginia. Whether or not their game plan will be good enough to beat Kentucky remains to be seen, but they won’t go down without a fight.