Feast Week Mission Briefing: West Virginia in the NIT Season Tip-Off

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 24th, 2016

Feast Week is here. To get you ready for the Big 12’s representation in the various holiday tournaments over the next week, our Feast Week Mission Briefings continue today with West Virginia in the NIT Season Tip-Off, which takes place at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Catching Up: Devin Williams, Jaysean Paige and Jonathan Holton are gone, but “Press Virginia” is alive and well in Morgantown. The 3-0 Mountaineers again lead the country in defensive turnover rate (34.2%) and are first in defensive steal rate (17.3%), steamrolling lesser competition by an average of 42.7 points per game. The demands of Bob Huggins‘ style and the big leads it has generated have given way to a deep, balanced attack in the early part of the season. A staggering 11 players have seen the floor for at least 10 minutes per game and five players are currently posting double-figure scoring averages, led by Nathan Adrian‘s 13.3 points per contest.

This Thanksgiving, opposing teams will be thankful if they can hold onto the ball against West Virginia's swarming defense. (AP/Raymond Thompson)

This Thanksgiving, opposing teams should be thankful if they can hold onto the ball against West Virginia’s swarming defense. (AP/Raymond Thompson)

Opening Round Preview: Illinois will give West Virginia its first real test of the season today in Brooklyn. It feels like John Groce’s team has been snake-bitten from the minute he arrived in Champaign, but his team is off to a solid 4-1 start, although the loss, which came at the hands of Winthrop, shows that they aren’t out of the woods quite yet. Still, the Illini are shooting the ball well, hitting 39.8 percent of their threes, led by seniors Tracy Abrams (7-of-11, 63.6%) and Malcolm Hill (15-of-29, 51.7%). The team has also been extremely effective inside, converting 87.3 percent of its attempts at the rim, per hoop-math.com. The problem for Illinois is that it hasn’t valued the ball, turning it over on 20.2 percent of their possessions and winning the battle on the offensive glass only 23.3 percent of the time. Those are weaknesses that West Virginia is well-versed in exploiting, and Huggins’ team should be able to do just that. Read the rest of this entry »

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One Burning Question: How Can West Virginia Replace Its Lost Talent?

Posted by Chris Stone on November 2nd, 2016

The idea of building around a system or a specific style of play is not a new one in college basketball. Villanova’s Jay Wright, for example, has historically succeeded by playing a four-out, one-in offensive system that features guards who can shoot and take advantage of mismatches. The Big 12 also has its share of programs with a knack for finding players and fitting them into a largely predetermined system of play. Kansas head coach Bill Self has been notoriously stubborn about his high-low offense, even going so far as to suggest there is a target number of three-point field goals the Jayhawks look to take each season. At VCU, Shaka Smart earned his reputation by regularly recruiting players best suited to succeed in the system he dubbed “HAVOC.” Over the past several seasons, another Big 12 program has made waves by instituting a similarly successful, if not somewhat unorthodox, system.

With a revamped press philosophy, Bob Huggins and West Virginia are climbing their way up the college basketball mountain. (USA TODAY Sports)

With a revamped press philosophy, West Virginia is climbing its way back up the college basketball mountain. (USA TODAY Sports)

West Virginia has developed a fast-paced, in-your-face press — Press Virginia, if you will — that has turned the Mountaineers from a merely average defensive team into one of the very best in the country., Bob Huggins’ team has ranked among the top two nationally in defensive turnover percentage the last two seasons, causing a miscue on over a quarter of their opponents’ offensive possessions. All those giveaways in turn led to easy buckets and spurred West Virginia on to consecutive NCAA Tournament bids after several years of middling efforts. The question now is whether the proven system can withstand a significant shock to its personnel. West Virginia no longer has the services of either of their two double-figure scorers from a year ago — Jaysean Paige is out of eligibility and big man Devin Williams declared early for the 2016 NBA Draft. The pair provided the Mountaineers with something of an offensive safety net when the turnovers weren’t coming. Jonathan Holton is also finished. The 6’9″ forward –one of the signature pieces in Huggins’ pressing defense — was the type of versatile athlete who excelled atop the press. Holton could defend smaller players coming upcourt with time to quickly recover and battle with some of the league’s best in the post. He was also the team’s second-best rebounder, helping to close out defensive possessions after opponents had gotten through the pressure and taken a rushed shot. Read the rest of this entry »

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Keeping the Big 12 Expansion Doors Open

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 20th, 2016

For a little while on Monday, it seemed like the Big 12 might actually expand after months of indecisiveness. As we all know now, the league’s press conference ended up being a whole lot of nothing as commissioner Bob Bowlsby announced an extension of the status quo (until it comes up again this winter and we do this dance all over again). The will-they/won’t-they is frustrating enough for college football fans with their sport driving the decisions (or lack thereof), but it’s also exasperating on the basketball side as we’re merely along for the ride. If there’s any solace we can take from the seemingly seasonal Big 12 expansion talks, it is that the programs mentioned most frequently each have considerable basketball juice to bring to the table. Football may steer the ship in terms of overall revenue potential, but the hoops programs at BYU, Cincinnati and Connecticut would certainly make basketball even more competitive than it already is, with invested fan bases and strong histories in tow. Let’s take a closer look at each.

BYU

Jimmer Fredette Was a Household Name at BYU Several Years Ago (Jack Dempsey/AP)

Jimmer Fredette Was a Household Name at BYU Several Years Ago (Jack Dempsey/AP)

  • The Lowdown: The Cougars may not be as nationally relevant as they were when NPOY Jimmer Fredette was rewriting the school’s record books twice a week, but there’s still a lot to like about this program. Head coach Dave Rose has led BYU to NCAA Tournament appearances in eight of his 11 seasons at the helm, although they’ve only advanced to the Round of 32 twice and the Sweet Sixteen once in those chances. They play a very entertaining brand of offensive basketball, pushing tempo, valuing possessions, and knocking down threes. That might suggest a finesse style in the vein of Hoiberg-era Iowa State, but they also crash the defensive glass with complete abandon, ranking among the upper echelon in defensive rebounding rate on an annual basis.

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With such a high level of success and an entertaining blueprint to match, the Cougars have transformed the Marriott Center into a fortress, losing just four conference games there over the last three seasons. BYU regularly ranks among the top 15 schools in attendance, topping every current Big 12 program other than Kansas.

  • Recent Big 12 Meetings: The Cougars are incredibly tough to beat at home, but Iowa State did just that in November 2014, winning a 90-88 thriller in Provo. Just five days later, though, BYU exacted revenge on the Big 12 with an 86-82 win over Texas in Kansas City. Going back even further than that, BYU also lost to Iowa State in Ames in 2013 and dropped a pair of games to Baylor that same year — once in Waco and then in New York in the NIT semifinals. Read the rest of this entry »
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Bracket Prep: East Region

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 14th, 2016

bracketprep22

On Monday and Tuesday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: Monday (East and West); Tuesday (South and Midwest). Here, Brian Otskey (@botskey) breaks down the East Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC East Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCeastregion).

East Region

Favorite: No. 1 North Carolina (28-6, 14-4 ACC). Although this region is loaded from top to bottom, the ACC regular season and tournament champions are the clear favorite. Roy Williams has one of the nation’s most talented teams with seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige leading the way. Contending with Johnson is a nightmare for most teams. A relentless rebounder who averages a double-double, Johnson is one of the nation’s most efficient players. Carolina has weaknesses — namely three-point shooting and three-point defense — but the way it utilizes great athleticism to speed up the game makes the Heels hard to beat.

UNC

The ACC regular season and tournament champions are the favorite to take the East Region. (Photo: Todd Melet)

Should They Falter: No. 4 Kentucky (26-8, 13-5 SEC). Yes, we’re going to roll with the Wildcats here. John Calipari’s team has made Final Fours from lower seeded positions — most notably in 2011 and 2014. This is not a vintage Kentucky team by any means, but it is highly talented and Coach Cal has proven that he can push the right buttons in March. College basketball is a guards’ game and Kentucky has that in spades with Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe. The lack of a major threat inside and occasionally spotty defense are definite concerns, but Kentucky has the talent and athletes to get by North Carolina in a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup.

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Rushed Reactions: Kansas 81, West Virginia 71

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 12th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three key takeaways.

Kansas Does the Double Big 12 Championship Thing (USA Today Images)

Kansas Does the Double Big 12 Championship Thing (USA Today Images)

  1. Devonte’ Graham shows out once again. Kansas’ sophomore guard has never been particularly bad, but he’s been a completely different player over the last month of the season. He routinely broke West Virginia’s trademark press and hit plenty of big shots, finishing with 27 points on 16 attempts en route capturing the Big 12 Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. Graham also capitalized on some suspect decision-making by the Mountaineers, adding four steals to his stat line, and was the most expressive player for a team that has been criticized by Bill Self for not having vocal leaders. There may not be a player who epitomizes Kansas’ loose style of play down the stretch of this season more than Graham, and it’s getting easier with each passing game to nod your head with Chris Stone’s prediction that the Raleigh, North Carolina native will have one shining moment in the Dance.
  2. Devin Williams finds rhythm, but not help. West Virginia’s best player has struggled to find consistency against top-flight opponents as of late, but he was tremendous throughout the game — regularly going up strong against Kansas’ big men and showing a smooth jumper when the Jayhawks gave him space. Williams finished with a game-high 31 points, but his supporting cast completely let him down. Though the Mountaineers came into the game on an extended hot streak from deep, they shot just 2-of-15 there tonight, and Daxter Miles was the only Mountaineer other than Williams who scored more than six points. We know that fouls may be an issue next week with West Virginia playing in neutral environments, but this is also too deep a team for it to rely so heavily on one guy.
  3. West Virginia exposes Kansas’ liabilities defending the interior. The Jayhawks’ biggest strength is their incredibly deep rotation of perimeter players, but its interior (especially on the defensive end) carries more questions. Landen Lucas has been the team’s best post defender over the last few weeks, but Kansas struggled to maintain a lead in the first half as Williams got Lucas into early foul trouble. Jamari Traylor didn’t provide any answers behind him, and for all the talent and potential Carlton Bragg brings to the table, his four fouls in just 10 minutes of action show that he’s still a long way off. All of that comes before getting into why Cheick Diallo and Hunter Mickelson haven’t given Kansas meaningful minutes. It’s much easier said than done, but if an opponent can get Lucas into foul trouble or make him defend in space, the Jayhawks’ less effective and experienced players will be pressured to perform above their norms. It’s far from the only thing needed to send Kansas home early in the next couple weeks, but when it comes to considering key ingredients for an upset, making Lucas uncomfortable should be at the top of the list.

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Rushed Reactions: West Virginia 69, Oklahoma 67

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 12th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three key takeaways.

Buddy Hield's buzzer-beating three was a fraction of a second late, nullifying the crazy celebration it sparked.

Buddy Hield’s buzzer-beating three was ruled to be fraction of a second late, nullifying the celebration it sparked just behind Press Row.

  1. Buddy Hield and the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day. The National Player of the Year candidate had arguably his worst game of the year in more ways than one. Having played 152 of his team’s last 160 minutes, Hield wasn’t at 100 percent and it showed as he struggled to a 1-of-8 performance from the floor, but he had an opportunity to redeem himself in the game’s closing seconds. After West Virginia’s Jonathan Holton hit the back end of two free throw attempts to put West Virginia ahead by two points with one second left, Oklahoma had one last chance to tie the game or take the lead. Hield broke free from his defender, caught the inbounds pass and started up the sideline, hoisting a three from 50 feet away just as the buzzer sounded. The shot miraculously banked in, seemingly giving Oklahoma the victory and catapulting Hield into the stands to celebrate. After further review by the officials, though, the party was broken up and the bucket was overturned. Jubilation among the Sooners quickly transferred to the Mountaineers as the crowd buzzed in equal parts shock and delight. The absence of another game this weekend for Oklahoma could be a blessing in disguise, though, as it gives the Sooners another day of rest before the NCAA Tournament starts next week. The drama of March certainly hit Oklahoma’s star very hard on this night.
  2. West Virginia gets hot from deep. The Mountaineers will never be mistaken for a team that blinds opponents with their spacing, but they can get hot from outside and they did so tonight. Led by Jevon Carter’s 6-of-9 three-point shooting performance, West Virginia regularly found open shooters on its way to a 45.5 percent clip, the eighth time this season in which they eclipsed 40 percent from distance. The Mountaineers’ preferred style of offense is to create high-percentage looks generated by their press, but the added wrinkle of a perimeter game worthy of respect could raise this team’s ceiling once the brackets are unveiled on Sunday.
  3. There was more to the finish than the buzzer-beater that wasn’t. Between Hield’s struggles and West Virginia’s hot shooting, the Mountaineers built a 12-point lead with seven minutes left, but the Sooners rallied to create a back-and-forth contest over the last three minutes. Hield’s desperation heave twas a product of two key plays in just the last five seconds. With four ticks remaining and his team down by one, Christian James drove for a layup that would have given the Sooners the lead, but he shockingly missed the high-percentage look, which was rebounded by Holton. After Holton was fouled, he missed the first free throw to keep the lead at one with just one second remaining. Rather than intentionally missing the second free throw to significantly reduce the chance of Oklahoma getting a clear look, though, Holton hit the second free throw, setting the drama of the final play into motion. Fortunately for Holton and the Mountaineers, Hield’s three was ultimately waved off, but it’s always interesting to look back and see how one play — James’ botched layup, in this case — changes the complexion of a game.

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Big 12 Power Rankings: It’s Practically March Edition

Posted by Nate Kotisso on February 26th, 2016

It is practically March, isn’t it? We’re just four days away. You can almost feel the bubble shrink as at-large hopefuls drop games they shouldn’t be dropping and simultaneously expand whenever a recent winning streak is validated with a big win. As of now, the Big 12’s bubble situation is relatively clear. Barring a flurry of wins from Kansas State within the next two weeks, the conference will send seven teams to the NCAA Tournament. The last team among the seven is Texas Tech. When Big 12 coaches picked them to finish 10th a few months ago, how could anyone have seen this coming?

THE EVIDENCE. (Big12Sports.com)

HERE IS THE EVIDENCE. LOOK AT IT. LOOK AT ITTTTTT (Big12Sports.com)

Texas Tech has eight conference wins at this point which bodes well with how the selection committee has historically treated eight-win Big 12 teams. Oklahoma State (twice) and Texas (once) made it safely into the field of 68 with that number in 2014 and 2015. Much has been written about the Red Raiders’ rise from rotten to respectable, and rightly so, but we shouldn’t forget that they’ve gone on this five-game winning streak without the services of starting center Norense OdiaseTubby Smith is the favorite for Big 12 Coach of the Year and is also creeping into National Coach of the Year discussions as well. Now let’s hope all seven clubs make it to the Sweet Sixteen.

Big 12 Power Rankings

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Big 12 Power Rankings: West Virginia Is Finally Here Edition

Posted by Nate Kotisso on February 5th, 2016

West Virginia is a basketball team. A very solid basketball team, in fact. A team whose hallmark is to press the life out of opponents. A team that scores easy baskets off turnovers. A team that makes its fans cringe when it clangs jump shots off odd parts of the backboard. The Mountaineers started 4-0 in Big 12 play playing the good ol’ West Virginia way before losing back-to-back games at Oklahoma and at home to Texas. In the four games since those defeats, it appears that we’re seeing a different West Virginia team. Not only have the Mountaineers gone 3-1 in that span, but their three-point shooting has improved (35 percent in their last four games; 31 percent for the year) as well as their free-throw percentage (73.4 percent in their last four games; 66 percent for the year). Tuesday night’s win at Iowa State marked the first time a team other than Baylor or Kansas has defeated Iowa State in Ames since the start of the 2012-13 season. Bob Huggins‘ team now finds itself in a first-place tie with Oklahoma with nine games still to play. The Mountaineers are very good and they can no longer be ignored.

Bob Huggins has won 711 games as a Division I coach. I feel like we don't say that enough. (Associated Press)

Bob Huggins has won 711 games as a Division I coach. We don’t say that enough. (AP)

  1. Oklahoma — 3 points (All voted 1st). Comment: “With most of the focus understandably on Buddy Hield’s National Player of the Year campaign, the evolution of junior guard Jordan Woodard — arguably the most improved player in the country this season — hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Having shed his responsibilities as the primary ball-handler, Woodard’s turnover rate has declined eight percent while maintaining his assist rate. It’s also opened up his own offensive game. Woodard is shooting 51 percent from deep and has already made 51 threes, more than he made in his first two seasons combined. Every good superhero needs a sidekick, and Woodard is filling that role nicely.” – Chris Stone (@cstonehoops)
  2. West Virginia — 6 points (All voted 2nd). Comment: Jonathan Holton‘s loss was Devin Williams‘ gain, at least in Monday’s win at Hilton Coliseum. Williams has been terrific all season long, but the absence of Holton — the Mountaineers’ second-leading rebounder behind Williams — due to a violation of team rules indirectly led to Williams pulling down a career-high 18 rebounds in the big win in Ames. – Brian Goodman (@bsgoodman) Read the rest of this entry »
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What’s Trending: We’re Back and We’re Here to Stay

Posted by Griffin Wong on January 14th, 2016

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Griffin Wong (@griffwong90) is your weekly host.

Tragedy Strikes the Basketball World

The college basketball community was hit hard with the death of Andrew Smith earlier this week. Smith, a Butler center during its back-to-back title game runs in 2010 and 2011, finally lost his battle with cancer on Tuesday. His family has received tremendous support from all over the Internet over the last couple days.

It’s clear that Smith was an outstanding human being. Tragic.

Bob Huggins Hits the Jackpot
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College Basketball’s Grinch: A Deeper Look at West Virginia’s Press

Posted by Chris Stone on December 21st, 2015

After five straight seasons of NCAA Tournament appearances including a run to the 2010 Final Four, West Virginia missed out on March Madness altogether in its first two years in the Big 12 (2012-13 and 2013-14). A 13-19 season was followed by a 17-16 mark, and after that disappointing season, the team’s second leading scorer, Eron Harris, announced plans to transfer. To outside observers, it appeared that the program was in something of an identity crisis. The next season, the Mountaineers were subsequently picked to finish sixth in the preseason Big 12 poll. But rather than to wallow in mediocrity, head coach Bob Huggins opted to make a significant change to his style of play. That process has been well-documented by both Raphielle Johnson from NBC Sports and C.J. Moore at Bleacher Report, but the short version is that Huggins enlisted the help of former Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey to implement a faster pace and full-court press. The first-year results were impressive, as the Mountaineers became the most proficient team in college basketball at turning opponents over and their adjusted defensive efficiency shot 100 spots up the rankings. West Virginia finished tied for fourth place in the Big 12 standings with a 25-10 (11-7) record before making a run to the Sweet Sixteen.

With a revamped press philosophy, Bob Huggins and West Virginia are climbing their way up the college basketball mountain. (USA TODAY Sports)

With a revamped pressure defensive philosophy, West Virginia is climbing its way up the college basketball mountain. (USA TODAY Sports)

Through the first month of this season, the Mountaineers once again lead the country in defensive turnover rate. They are sixth in overall adjusted defensive efficiency and figure to again be a tough out in March. While many have already written about how “Press Virginia” came into existence, few have examined what makes the defense really tick. Last Thursday, in a below average defensive performance, West Virginia defeated intrastate rival Marshall, 86-68. It created a turnover on 24.7 percent of possessions, a number well below its 30.3 percent season average. However, the game still offered several insights into how Press Virginia operates. Let’s start with a full possession from early in the game. Read the rest of this entry »

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