Three-point defense at the forefront of West Virginia’s strengths through six games

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia returned home from the San Juan Shootout with three wins on top of the three it had before the event, allowing the Mountaineers to carry a 6-0 record into Saturday’s noon matchup with St. Bonaventure at the WVU Coliseum.

While the trip have come at somewhat of a cost as a result of an injury sustained by 5-foot-10 junior Kyah Watson early on in West Virginia’s most recent victory over Southern Illinois, it reinforced thoughts for first-year head coach Mark Kellogg, who continues to discover more about his team during non-conference play.

“We battled and competed on the defensive end. We’re defending the thee pretty well right now even though we’re mixing defenses and playing some zone, which typically people think you’re going to give up threes when you play zone, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way,” Kellogg said. “We’ve done a good job there. 

“The offense is still too inconsistent for me. At times we’re good and at times not so good. We’re turning people over, which is sometimes leading to offense, but we’re missing layups at a pretty high rate and in transition, which is a little bit of a struggle for me right now. If we have the ability to turn people over, we need to convert those more than what we’re doing.”

That’ll be a focus for West Virginia before it welcomes the Bonnies and Penn State, with the Mountaineers slated to play two home games in a span of 54 hours starting Saturday afternoon.

Yet as it prepares to start a five-game home stand, West Virginia does so with a firm understanding of what has and hasn’t worked well to this point, and there’s been no bigger strength of the Mountaineers than their ability to defend the three-point shot.

West Virginia has the second-best three-point field goal percentage defense in the country at 17.8 percent, with opponents having made a mere 16-of-90 triples to this point. Only four Division I teams have allowed fewer than 16 threes, and of those four, three have played fewer games than WVU.

“It’s probably not sustainable at the rate we’re playing at right now,” Kellogg said. “It’s something you want to do. The analytics say don’t give up layups at the rim and don’t give up open threes. We don’t want to do those two things. We may give up certain other areas from time to time, but those are things we’re OK with. It’s to the kids’ credit. There’s a scouting report, attention to detail to that and knowing who can shoot and who can’t, and shots that we want to give up. So far, we’re giving up the ones we want to give up to the right kids.”

Over three games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Mountaineers limited George Washington, Charlotte and Southern Illinois to a combined six threes on 35 attempts. Charlotte, which made 3 of 10 from long range, was the most successful and efficient of West Virginia’s opponents from the perimeter.

The 49ers are the only of West Virginia’s six opponents to shoot at least 30 percent from behind the arc this season. Youngstown State, which the Mountaineers handled 94-40 on November 19, has the most threes of any WVU opponent with six, though that came on 28 attempts — 13 more than the next closest opponent has tried.

West Virginia’s ability to defend the perimeter is made more impressive in that the Mountaineers consistently pressure opponents the length of the court and mix defenses, whether it be dropping back into zone or playing man-to-man.

“Have conviction to what you do is what I’ve always said as a basketball coach,” Kellogg said. “If you want to play zone, play zone. People that play man, when they give up threes, they don’t get out of their man defense. But people that play man and then play a possession of zone and give up a three, they go right back to man defense. Just be convicted in what you do. 

“We have a system and structure. If we defend right, we should be able to take away the three, regardless if we’re playing man or zone. If you make a mistake in either one of your defenses, you may give up a three. We’re making a few mistakes, but luckily, people haven’t been able to convert. We still have some work to do, but for the most part, we’re doing a pretty good job of if we give one up that we want to give up and who we want to give them up to. It’s probably more scout specific and types of shots we’re looking to give up.”

West Virginia’s disruptiveness has certainly aided its ability to force misses from the perimeter. Constant ball pressure has taken a toll on opponents and the Mountaineers have forced 144 turnovers for an average of 24 per game.

The effort is spearheaded by a trio of guards that have combined for 52 of the team’s 85 steals in Lauren Fields, JJ Quinerly and Jordan Harrison. Each is averaging at least 2.5 steals to this point and Fields recorded a career-high eight in a 28-point win over Charlotte on November 24.

Fields says much of the team’s success defending the perimeter can be attributed to its pressure, which often forces opposing teams to play at a pace they don’t prefer.

“We turn people over a lot, so there’s not as many possessions. That’s one of the first things,” Fields said. ”The second thing is we make people play faster, so if they’re playing at a faster speed, they’re not able to get set, take their time and get off catch and shoot three-point shots. That plays a big role in it.”

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