Following Tuesday night’s epic victory at Iowa State, West Virginia seems to be an enigma.
It’s par for the course — not entirely in a bad way, to be sure, but volatility is never comfortable. That’s how diehard fans get ulcers.
At least the aches and pains produced by the Mountaineers usually emerge in moments of victory. Tuesday night’s triumph is the biggest one yet for a team which doesn’t sustain prosperity, yet always seems to bounce back just when things seem to be heading south.
The win over Iowa State comes just days after a 17-point thumping at the hands of a marginal Florida team. That trip to Gainesville for the Big 12-SEC Challenge was a disaster — the final score was actually kinder to the Mountaineers than the game was. West Virginia had its press broken frequently, leading to easy shots the Gators did not miss. On the other end of the floor, a lack of a pure scorer continued to doom the Mountaineers and scoring droughts followed.
Even against Iowa State, West Virginia dug itself a 15-point first-half hole due to scoring issues. Typically in Hilton Coliseum, that kind of deficit is game, set, match. In this case, the Mountaineers came up with an inspired defensive effort and strong interior play, beginning in the final minutes of the first half. They carried that same fire into the second half and mounted a successful comeback. The Mountaineers hounded Iowa State star Georges Niang into eight turnovers. WVU’s relentless pressure and an offensive rebounding percentage over 50 (the Mountaineers rebounded 17 of their 32 misses) gave the visitors enough extra possesssions to offset 11 three-point makes for the Cyclones in 22 tries. ISU’s 11-of-19 night from the foul line also gave West Virginia enough free points to carve out an 81-76 victory.
Just based on its roster and style of play, West Virginia has been susceptible to scoring troubles in recent years. That has eventually led to the team’s demise in March, at least before the Final Four. What makes this year’s squad any different?
Jaysean Paige scored 23 points off the bench against Iowa State, and Devin Williams was a beast on the boards — especially at the offensive end. Williams was the catalyst for the Mountaineers’ dominant night on the glass. Beyond their offensive rebonding advantage (17-8), the Mountaineers outrebounded Iowa State for the game, 43-26. West Virginia forged an 18-6 advantage in second- chance points. That is certainly one way to overcome scoring issues in the halfcourt – don’t allow second shots and get some of your own.
West Virginia also lacks “the guy” on the offensive end in halfcourt situations. Paige could certainly become the answer if Tuesday is a sign of things to come. Even if he continues to come off the bench, the 10-of-17 shooting numbers Paige put up against Iowa State would be huge moving forward.
What’s also worth mentioning about West Virginia is that it was playing this game on Tuesday without its best player, Jonathan Holton, who averages 12.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Holton’s loss was felt against Florida, when the Mountaineers forced only 14 turnovers and committed 18 of their own. While 14 may be solid for some teams, West Virginia is the leader in the nation in forcing turnovers. Taking away the ball and getting cheap transition baskets are vital to WVU’s success.
When forced into a halfcourt game, the scoring troubles begin for Press Virginia. To offer just one example other than the Florida game, the Mountaineers fell to Texas, 56-49, on Jan. 20. In that game, WVU hit 19 shots from the floor, a paltry 31-percent effort.
The defensive pressure is going to cause stress for the other team when it is active and effective. It will be enough to keep the Mountaineers in games. However, down the stretch, there cannot be a lid on the hoop. The fear is that in a big game, West Virginia will fall into that hole and the season will end prematurely. WVU exceeeded its seeding in last year’s NCAA tournament. Reaching the Sweet 16 as a 5 seed represented a good showing for Bob Huggins’s crew. Yet, as Mountaineer fans know, cheering this team is an invitation to a precarious existence — you know you’ll get effort on a relatively consistent basis, but shooting comes and goes with Press Virginia. The easy baskets off steals need to keep flowing for this team to make a run at the Final Four.
Tuesday night was a big step in the right direction, but this kind of effort-fueled performance — leavened with just enough perimeter shooting to make a difference — has to continue for the Mountaineers to earn our trust.