For the entire 40 minutes at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya on Wednesday night, West Virginia imposed its will on Wichita State to win the Cancun Challenge championship with a 75-63 victory over the Shockers.
WSU looked out of sorts on offense throughout the game, a result of the pressure defense by West Virginia that led to the Shockers shooting 30.6% from the field and 24% on three-pointers.
So what exactly did the Mountaineers do to make WSU so uncomfortable?
Here are what the typical WSU possessions looked like
The foundation of West Virginia’s defense is the pressure that it applies not only to the ball handler, but also to any player within the vicinity of the ball.
The Mountaineers hound ball handlers and then deny one pass away, even if that means chasing players out to the half-court line.
WSU saw a version of this defense the day before against South Carolina, but it was clear on Wednesday that West Virginia was a cut above and had WSU’s young ball handlers rattled.
The Shockers are used to starting their half-court sets near the three-point line. Not against West Virginia. In its finest form, West Virginia’s defense doesn’t let offenses start from where they want to start, cut to where they want to cut or pass where they want to pass. They force teams outside of their comfort zone and that’s where WSU was forced to operate for a good portion of Wednesday’s game.
It was typical for WSU to start running its play near half-court because West Virginia’s ball pressure had forced them out there. If WSU was able to dribble penetrate, West Virginia would send a defender or two flying to the ball to cut it off. More times than not, the Shockers didn’t have the proper floor spacing to find cutters or open shooters and make West Virginia pay.
Another typical possession for WSU on Wednesday looked like this: West Virginia would hound whoever was bringing the ball up to drain seconds off the shot clock, then West Virginia’s deny defense on the wings would leave WSU’s ball handler dribbling outside the three-point line in search of an open pass.
There were a handful of possessions where WSU didn’t complete its first pass until 15 seconds or fewer were on the shot clock. That means if WSU’s first action on its play wasn’t there, it was often left forcing up contested 1-on-1 shots just to beat the shot clock.
As a result, West Virginia’s defense held WSU to a staggering 0.69 points per possession in the halfcourt.
The Mountaineers gave WSU fits with its switch-happy defense
It didn’t matter if WSU was running its ball screen or motion offense, West Virginia’s switch-happy defense gave the Shockers fits.
WSU has found success in its ball-screen offense when its point guard uses a ball screen and dribbles to a wing, as the big man rolls straight down the middle of the floor and a shooter rotating up to the top of the key. This action typically puts the defense in a bind, as it has to choose between stopping the rolling big man or getting out to the shooter replacing him on the perimeter.
West Virginia found a way to completely neutralize this action by executing the same triple switch scheme that Cincinnati used last season to slow down the Shockers. It’s a complex scheme that requires heady players and constant communication, but West Virginia pulled it off flawlessly.
Instead of having the defender under the basket choose between guarding the rolling big man or chasing the shooter to the perimeter, West Virginia kept that defender under the basket to switch onto the rolling big man. After switching the ball screen, the off-ball defender simply waited for WSU’s shooter to rotate to the top of the key and was able to deny that pass.
West Virginia’s switching was also a problem for WSU in its motion offense, which relies on a bevy of off-ball screens to try to free players for open layups. But WSU rarely found those shots because West Virginia switched almost every off-ball screen so when WSU went to go screen the cutter was cutting right into a West Virginia defender waiting for him.
Switching everything sounds pretty great, right? Why doesn’t every team do it?
Because not every team has the size, length and athleticism that West Virginia does at every position. The Mountaineers have a versatile roster and are well-coached by Bob Huggins to be able to pull off the complex defense.
Even when WSU found the mismatch on switches — like when a West Virginia big would try to defend a WSU guard — the Shockers failed to make West Virginia pay.
That’s because WSU had very little success in the paint against West Virginia’s length. The Shockers made an extremely low 38% of their shots near the basket, a result of West Virginia blocking eight shots and altering many more when the Shockers drove.
It caused a ripple effect through WSU’s offense. The Shockers were getting blocked at the rim, so they started pulling up for awkward 8-foot jumpers. When those didn’t fall, WSU fell victim to WVU’s pressure speeding up its ball handlers and baiting them into taking rushed shots.
West Virginia played like it wanted it more
WSU coach Gregg Marshall said after the game that West Virginia was the “badder” and “better” team on Wednesday.
The litmus test for coaches on determining the tougher team is who won the rebounding battle and on Wednesday it wasn’t even close. West Virginia pulled down 17 offensive rebounds, as WSU boarded out at just a 54% rate on the defensive end compared to West Virginia’s 74% defensive rebound rate.
A lot of the offensive rebounds WSU allowed was due to being out of position when the shot went up. But there were multiple occasions where WSU’s bigs were in position only to fail to properly box out and give up the offensive rebound, usually to West Virginia’s Oscar Tshiebwe, who finished with 19 points and 18 rebounds (6 on the offensive end).
Marshall will also be disappointed in the two times WSU gave up an easy basket in transition because it was out-hustled on the fast break, especially after he made guarding in transition a top priority before the game.
Simple communication by the Shockers could have prevented both baskets, but instead WSU’s defense didn’t talk to cover a streaking player down the court and West Virginia scored two easy baskets on the Shockers.
The Shockers squandered their few chances
West Virginia certainly forced WSU into its fair share of low-percentage shots, but the Shockers also generated a decent amount of open three-pointers.
After film review, the Eagle counted 11 three-pointers that WSU took in-rhythm without a strong contest from a defender. The Shockers made just three of them.
In a game where points were at a premium, failing to capitalize on the rare open looks it did find hurt WSU.
Marshall has spoken frequently this season about WSU’s ongoing learning process of executing the details of his motion offense. There is a certain rhythm and timing WSU needs to execute its offense in and freshmen ball handlers don’t have the experience to always know when and where to look.
That was again the case on Wednesday, as the Shockers had chances for easy baskets with the right pass at the right time in the right spot only for the pass to be a half-second too late or two feet outside of where it should have been located.