Bob Huggins unsure on future of “Press” Virginia defense

CONWAY, S.C. — If “Press” Virginia isn’t severely hobbled, then it certainly is developing a noticeable limp.

The Mountaineers’ once nationally-feared full–court pressure defense was picked apart by Western Kentucky on Friday, during a 63-57 loss to the Hilltoppers in the semifinals of the Myrtle Beach Invitational.

“To my knowledge, we turned it over just one time [against WVU’s press] on a 10-second count,” Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury said. “Dalano [Banton] should have dribbled it over [the timeline], but instead he threw it back to Jake [Ohmer] and they got us with a 10-second count. Outside of that, we kept them out of transition and kept them from getting easy baskets.”

Is “Press” Virginia dead? That probably is a little premature at this point, and it would be surprising to see the Mountaineers not at least try it some more in Sunday’s third-place game against St. Joseph’s (3-1).

The game tips at 4 p.m. on ESPNU.

At the same time, it’s not exactly an insane thought that the full-court press is coming to an end this season.

“We don’t really have [a press] right now,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “We’ve tried. We don’t have the foot speed. We don’t have the athleticism.

“We played two teams here [Monmouth and Western Kentucky] who were more athletic than us. We don’t have the athleticism.”

The Mountaineers (1-2), who began the season ranked No. 13 on the thought they would continue to be a hard-charging and relentless full-court pressure team, have forced an average of 14 turnovers per game — only TCU is forcing less in the Big 12.

And if the Mountaineers aren’t forcing turnovers, they’re not getting out in transition for some easy baskets.

“We didn’t get any transition points [against Western Kentucky],” West Virginia guard Chase Harler said. “That’s kind of where we’ve scored and where we’ve thrived [in the past]. We’ve really struggled.”

Since the inception of the press, during the 2014-15 season, West Virginia led the nation in turnovers forced in three out of the last four years.

And the Mountaineers accomplished that with quick and athletic players like Jonathan Holton at the top of the press and quick and defensive-minded guards like Jevon Carter forcing traps and recording steals.

When Nathan Adrian took over at the top of the Mountaineers’ press, he wasn’t the most athletic forward, but he understood angles and how to force opposing players into traps.

The most opposing part of West Virginia’s press right now is Sagaba Konate’s ability to block shots at the back end of the defense and he’s playing on a sore knee.

It’s difficult to build a full-court pressing defense from the back.

At one time, opposing teams spent days preparing for the Mountaineers’ pressure and admitted they often tried to duplicate it by using seven or eight defenders against five offensive players.

During the 2015 NCAA tournament, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said the Terps began preparing for the press before the tournament even began.

West Virginia and Maryland didn’t meet until the second round.

Stansbury said Western Kentucky simply went over the press during a shoot-around hours before the game.

“We adjusted. Normally we have our power forward taking the ball out,” Stansbury explained. “We just cleared all those guys out and cleared the help defenders out so they couldn’t run and jump. We took all their help away so they couldn’t run and jump.

“If they ran a trap, we just told our guys to throw it back the other way and let them rotate to it. So, we never got double-teamed. They never turned us over. That was huge for us.”

Against the Hawks, who have a deadly shooter in sophomore Charlie Brown — he’s shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and averages 23.8 points per game — it may be difficult for West Virginia to spread out its defense again without taking the risk of leaving Brown open.

Will Huggins take the risk of continuing to try the full-court press?

“We’ve backed it up some. Honestly, I don’t know what to do,” Huggins said. “We’re not very good in half-court defense. I tried the 1-3-1. We’re not very good at it. I tried to play point-drop. That’s something we’ve played for years.”

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