As season goes on, West Virginia continues to have defensive setbacks

MORGANTOWN — Bob Huggins has never taught defense like it was some magic trick or secret cure-all that all you needed was the right combination drawn up on a chalkboard for it to work.

Huggins’ philosophy — he admits his way of thinking was stronger in his younger days — was actually on the opposite side of the spectrum from mystery and intrigue.

That philosophy: Either you could guard your guy and stay between him and the basket or you couldn’t.

“I used to have a rule that if you got beat and you weren’t pissed off, you went and ran for the rest of practice,” Huggins said after West Virginia’s 75-53 loss against Texas on Saturday. “If it was a game, you didn’t play anymore. I’m getting old, I guess.”

With the way the Mountaineers (10-14, 2-9 Big 12) are playing defense these days, Huggins would have a lot more guys sitting on the bench than playing in the game if he stuck to the letter of that rule.

“We don’t play with a lot of intensity and it doesn’t seem to bother us,” Huggins said.

West Virginia players describe the setbacks with a hint more subtlety to it. Otherwise finger pointing and the blame game would have torn apart this team long ago.

“We’ve really tried everything on defense and we’re struggling right now,” West Virginia guard Chase Harler said about a team that is last in the Big 12 in every relevant defensive category except for team blocked shots, team steals and rebounds. “We’re still searching for our identity. I think once we figure out what we need to do on defense, I think we can win some more games. It’s definitely on the defensive end.”

And this is the point of the story where Huggins tells the story of mutliple defensive adjustments.

Once a coach who built his reputation on hard-lined man-to-man defense that morphed into a defensive full-court pressure at West Virginia that eventually found its nickname of “Press” Virginia thrown onto T-shirts and hats, the Mountaineers quickly became a team without a defense to lean on from the start of the season.

The Mountaineers tried to keep “Press” Virginia alive, but by the time they reached the Myrtle Beach Invitational in November and Atlantic 10 and Conference USA teams were dissecting it, something had to change.

Then, the Mountaineers lost their shot blocker in Sagaba Konate to a knee injury a month later and then their most experienced guard, James “Beetle” Bolden, also went down to an ankle injury that he could not bounce back immediately from.

“It’s frustrating, but we had the defensive player of the year last year in J.C. [Jevon Carter] and we had Sags [Konate] back there,” West Virginia forward Esa Ahmad said. “Losing those guys was a big blow. We had Sags for a little bit this season, but his knee gave him problems. We had the kind of problems that we just couldn’t control.”

In that line of thinking came a conglomerate of defensive attempts to cover weaknesses or simply to try something new.

It was a full-court man-to-man for a while, that morphed into a 1-3-1, a 2-3 and then into a 3-2 zone that created sparks that never seemed to turn into a full-blown flame.

“That was probably wrong looking back on it,” Huggins said. “It probably gave them a crutch.”

Against Texas, the Mountaineers tried using a pac-line defense much like Virginia has used as its staple under head coach Tony Bennett. Once Texas made adjustments in the second half, it shot 53.1 percent and recorded seven dunks as part of its 17 second-half baskets.

The crutch, as Huggins put it, has now become a sort of excuse in finding some mythical alignment that will magically work with a roster that is without its top defensive player in Konate and without its most experienced guard in Bolden.

Meanwhile, players keep talking about getting back to practice and the film room, like there is some unused formula there waiting for them to be drawn up and utilized for their road game at No. 13 Kansas on Saturday.

“We just have to keep playing and keep fighting,” Ahmad said. “You just have to keep thinking about the next play. That’s what I tell the guys. We think we can win that game. We have to go in there with that mind set and look to get a win.”

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