Shooting it Straight

  • March 20, 2009 08:26 PM
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Posted by John Antonik on Friday, March 20, 2009
(8:30 p.m.)
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MINNEAPOLIS – West Virginia has not been accustomed to bowing out of the NCAA Tournament so early.

  Da'Sean Butler will be of four seniors on next year's team.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo

It has been 17 years since the Mountaineers last lost a first round NCAA Tournament game against Missouri in Greensboro. That was the game when the lights went out at the Greensboro Coliseum and when they came back on, Missouri shot lights out.

Five times since then – 1998, 2005, 2006 and 2008 – West Virginia got to at least the Sweet 16.

Dayton didn’t shoot lights out against West Virginia (46.3 percent) nor did it pound the smaller Mountaineers on the glass (37-32 West Virginia advantage), but the Flyers were able to keep West Virginia from running offense in the half court. Was it great Flyer defense or poor offensive execution by the Mountaineers?

Likely it was a combination of the two.

“We did a great job on the perimeter,” Dayton coach Brian Gregory said. “We just did a good job of staying underneath those guys when we had to stay underneath and chase them when we had to chase.”

Dayton has now won 27 games this year by stopping other teams. As of March 12, the Flyers were 17th in the nation in field goal percentage defense (39.6 percent) and were tied for 33rd in scoring defense (61.5).

West Virginia, with three freshmen in its top six, has been an erratic scoring team all season, particularly when Joe Mazzulla was lost for the year due to shoulder surgery. Twenty eight of the Mountaineers 35 games were spent making less than half their field goal tries, including the last 10 games of the year. Eight times West Virginia failed to shoot 40 percent and all eight times it lost – including today.

“Sometimes we don’t always shoot it straight,” said Huggins yesterday.

Against Dayton the Mountaineers didn’t shoot it straight.

“We run a set to start the game and Da had a wide-open look and hit the rim and one open in the corner and it is short,” Huggins said. “And we’re down by one and he had a great look. There wasn’t anybody around him. And those are shots that, you know, he has been making, but just didn’t make them.”

Bob Huggins has proved during a long and successful coaching career that his teams can take away other team’s offense. With the exception of a handful of times, Huggins’ two West Virginia teams have showed a similar propensity to stop teams.

Now, his coaches have to find some reliable offensive players that can score off the dribble and with their backs to the basket. Perhaps they are in the program right now and just need a little more seasoning. Freshman Devin Ebanks finished the year scoring double figures in 12 of his last 13 games with six double-doubles.

“Ebanks is a special player,” Gregory said. “He has a unique ability to offensive rebound. And we followed whoever was guarding him. (The player guarding Ebanks) didn’t have any rebounding responsibilities. He had to lay a body on him. Some guys have a knack and he does.”

Junior Da’Sean Butler had 43 points in a game against Villanova and scored 20 points or more 12 times in 2009. Yet his scoring average dipped from its high of 18.3 points per game following the Villanova explosion as teams began to focus more on stopping him.

Darryl Bryant showed flashes as a freshman, including today’s 21-point performance – one point shy of his season high scored against Marshall. And there were other times when he struggled mightily.

“Bryant is going to be a heck of a player for them,” said Gregory. “He’s a tough kid who is not afraid to take the big shots.”

Many times a player makes his biggest improvement from their freshman to sophomore seasons. Maybe that will happen next year with Bryant and Kevin Jones, who had six straight double-figure performances to end the regular season before struggling in post-season play.

Getting Ebanks, Jones and Bryant bigger and stronger will make a huge difference when teams try to push them around next year. Expect them to push back.

And maybe help will come from next year’s recruiting class that includes a couple of sorely needed bigs. Either way, Huggins will want more confident shooters who can score off the dribble, guys that can go to the glass and follow up misses, and bigs who can take the basketball on the block and turn around and score.

“I told our guys at halftime we have lost 12 games when we haven’t scored 70 points,” Huggins said. “We have to score some points.”

Seventy points would have been enough to get the job done on Friday.

Yet when added all up - considering the Mountaineers lost their best inside scorer a year early to the NBA Draft lottery (Joe Alexander) and a reliable four-year performer in Darris Nichols who always seemed to hit big shots and get the ball to the right players - making it to the NCAA Tournament once again this year was no small accomplishment.

But Huggins always expects much more from his teams, and you can bet he has already started planning for next year.

This season wasn’t the beginning to the end but rather the end of the beginning. Year three of Mountaineer basketball under Bob Huggins will finally see the full personality of Huggins shine through in his team.

And that’s shooting it straight.

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