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Pressed to impress: Mountaineers ride ‘random’ defense into Top 25

West Virginia’s trapping defense has helped the Mountaineers force 108 turnovers through five games. Yet Bob Huggins jokes that “I don’t know what we’re doing. It’s very random right now.”

 

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Having steered West Virginia back into the AP basketball Top 25 for the first time since March 2011, Bob Huggins welcomed the spoils of a 5-0 start.

“The best thing about being ranked,” he said, “is they put your highlights on SportsCenter.”

Huggins was only being slightly sarcastic about enjoying more television, yet his team certainly regained relevance and notoriety by upsetting then-No. 17 Connecticut on Sunday night to win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

After the Mountaineers jumped into the AP poll at No. 21 on Monday, forward-looking optimists scanned the schedule and raised the prospect of a 15-0 start. Huggins pumped the brakes on that runaway enthusiasm and focused on this week’s games against VMI and College of Charleston.

“Beating UConn is pretty big, provided we win Wednesday and Saturday,” he said. “This win won’t mean too much if we lay an egg and lose.”

The only eggs so far, relatively speaking, were clunky first halves against Monmouth and Boston College, and on both occasions West Virginia rallied behind its pressure defense. That full-court trapping rattled UConn early, ensuring the Mountaineers never trailed against the defending national champions.

After harassing the Huskies into 19 turnovers, Huggins and players admitted the press still has holes with players becoming overaggressive and getting caught out of position.

“Honestly, we kind of put the press in two days before our first game, but we have the right personnel to make it work,” said point guard Juwan Staten. “We’re still kind of learning this press but we have the players to get it done and do it well. By the end of the year we should have this press down pat when it counts the most.”

“Beating UConn is pretty big, provided we win Wednesday (vs. VMI) and Saturday (against College of Charleston). This win won’t mean too much if we lay an egg and lose.”           — West Virginia coach Bob Huggins

Through five games, WVU owns a 108-58 edge in turnovers. And though Huggins is irked by his team committing too many fouls and allowing too many runouts, he credits the press for draining opponents.

“It’s a cumulative effect and it wears people down,” he said. “It think it happened big-time at the end of the first half against Connecticut. And at the end of the game when they were coming back.”

West Virginia has the bodies to go full-force: Eight players are averaging 16 minutes per game, and that does’t include five-game starter Jaysean Paige who’s scoring 6.0 points and shooting a team-best 43.8 percent from 3-point range in about 12 minutes of action.

Against UConn, when foul trouble limited starting forwards Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton to 20 minutes each, West Virginia accommodated with other players rather successfully—leading by 15 at half and never by fewer than six points after that.

“It says a lot about our depth when you can take those two guys and basically play them only half a game,” Huggins said.

Once Billydee Williams returns from an orbital bone fracture—targeted for the LSU game on Dec. 4, Huggins said—the depth becomes even more imposing. Sophomore 6-9 forward Brandon Watkins also is being held out with an undisclosed illness, though Huggins pleaded HIPAA on that situation. (“I’m not allowed to discuss that, being that it’s medical. I don’t really know how long he’s going to be out.”)

The coach also anticipates more productivity from talented freshman forward Elijah Macon, who’s coping with the death of his mother. Macon’s assertive style has matched that of newcomers Daxter Miles and Jevon Carter, giving Huggins a gritty crew that compensates for the loss of last season’s top three 3-point shooters.

“I’ve got my kind of players again,” Huggins said. “Guys that will play, guys that will compete, guys that won’t back down from anybody.”





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