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Barstool Contender Series: It's Time to Talk About West Virginia

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This was a series I started last season and something I want to continue this year. The goal of this is to highlight and discuss teams that are flying a little bit under the radar that can contend on a national stage. Last year we covered the likes of Cincinnati, South Carolina, Dayton, Maryland and Notre Dame. We’ll take a look at different teams across the country as the season goes on, typically before or right after a marquee game and breakdown their strengths, weaknesses and what to expect moving forward. We move on this year with West Virginia. You can read the rest of the Contender Series as it goes on here: 

Texas Tech

I gave out West Virginia as one of my favorite futures bet in my blog yesterday, so it’s only right we start to talk about them in the contender series. Now, I know what most people will say when they hear West Virginia. Defensive team. Will press. Will foul a lot. Will really bother you, but are they truly a national title contender? The answer is yes and don’t worry we’re going to talk plenty about the defense. But, the main reason as to why these guys are looking like national title contenders starts on the offensive side of the ball. That’s where we’re going to start as well.

You have to begin with Jevon Carter, who is an All-American and one of the 5 best point guards in the country. The question I had coming into the season about him was whether or not his offensive improvement would continue or was it just a one year thing. Last year we saw a jump in 3-point shooting from 30% to 39% while he looked more comfortable in the halfcourt. This year that number has raised up to 39.5% while his free throw shooting has improved to 84%. Those are impressive numbers for a lead guard and the fact his free throw shooting has been consistent tells you that his shooting isn’t a weird trend. He’s getting to the free throw line too, ranking in the top-500 nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minuets and FT rate. Here’s a quick look at his season shot chart. The darker the bubble, the more efficient he is from there. The larger the bubble the more shots he’s taken from that spot:

Shot chart

Right off the bat there’s a couple takeaways I have just looking at the shot chart. First, he’s really efficient in the midrange and can beat you from most places on the court. Second, you better force him to the left corner to attempt threes, because that’s the only place he’s missing. Carter is averaging a stat line of 16.1 ppg/6.8 apg/5.5 rpg with a 118.3 ORtg. His current season has compared to the likes of Shabazz Napier and Jameer Nelson, that ain’t too shabby. He’s scoring .944 points per possession, which grades out as ‘good’ per Synergy and in the 63rd percentile nationally. He prefers to get out in transition, but in the halfcourt he likes to attack in spot up shooting, ISO and pick and roll.

West Virginia continues to run the five-out motion offense that Huggins has made famous since his time at Cincinnati. The difference with this year is it has led to a higher 3-point attempt average than any other year in Huggins career. You can see here against Baylor earlier this week how Carter gets open in a spot up attempt for three. Notice how open the lane is with all five players surrounding the 3-point line. After the initial action and swinging sides, the first development for Carter happens. The play design is for him to run off a staggered double screen starting at the free throw line to hopefully get him the ball on the low block for a quick layup. When that’s not there he retreats to opposite corner but notice a small thing here. Instead of rotating up as the play continues, he take a half step closer to the baseline giving a passing lane. From there it’s game over. He has good elevation on his jumper. His off hand isn’t too dominant on the ball and while his landing is a little awkward he gets good rotation.

The one thing to remember with Carter is, while he’s upped his scoring and been the go-to guy for West Virginia, he’s a better passer. His ppp as I mentioned earlier is .944. His points per assist though? West Virginia averages 2.505 points per every Carter assist. He does an excellent job of drawing attention as he gets into the lane and typically kicks for an open three. His assists by percentage are 51.4% of assists go towards 2-point baskets while 48.6% go to threes. This is where guys like Teddy Allen (more on him shortly), James Bolden and Lamont West all come into serious play. This is a common view when watching West Virginia. Look at how much attention Carter draws from the wing when he gets a step on his man. I’ll save you the video – West hits an open three off an assist here.

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The last offensive thing I want to address has been the growth of Teddy Allen as a freshman for this group. Allen was a pretty important get for West Virginia as the 3 star from Boys Town, Nebraska chose West Virginia over Iowa State and Cincinnati. Obviously getting him to commit instead of losing him to conference foe in Iowa State is huge for the long haul. But, specifically to this team, the emergence of Allen has given West Virginia the ability to score in the half court and that’s before it gets back Esa Ahmad. Allen is playing just 12 minutes per game and struggled against Baylor, but against Oklahoma, Kansas State and Oklahoma State – the 3 games to start conference play – he averaged 19 points per game while shooting over 70% from the field. Allen can be a difference maker because at 6’5″ he’s an excellent offensive rebounder and finisher in the paint. He’s not going to beat you from outside but he’s great at reading where to cut and getting to the spot. He’s physical for his size and of course a strong defender.

Speaking of strong defender. Let’s talk defense, shall we? I mean, you almost have to when it comes to West Virginia and this is obviously why I consider them the second best team in the country at the moment. They are forcing turnovers on the same amount of possessions as they are a year ago – 27.6% of the time. But, what they are doing differently this year is protecting the rim. This is the best shot blocking team Huggins has had in the KenPom era (starting with the 2001-02 Cincinnati team). They are blocking shots at a block rate of 16.9% which is currently seventh in the country. The main reason for that is Sagaba Konate who is 3rd in the country with a block rate of 17%.

Now, the key to West Virginia’s defense is to force turnovers obviously. But, more importantly, they take away your legs. The constant pressure. The physicality. The bumping. There’s all a reason here. It’s to wear down the opponent and make them tired. Once they get tired they pounce and that’s where the turnovers come into play. West Virginia has no problems gambling or reaching in trying to strip the ball. That’s what makes them so great in transition defense, giving up just .807 points per possession there. We’ll take a look at the press, because that’s where the majority of turnovers are coming from. They force turnovers 31% of the time they press.

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The West Virginia press is based on two main principles. The first is correct rotation which goes with the second which is a hard trap. When they throw a trap in the backcourt, it’s important that the other 3 on the floor rotate correct to not allow the transition bucket. That’s where you see guys jump passing lanes and force you to throw either a crosscourt pass or a full court length pass. Here’s the thing too. It starts on the inbound. Take a look at how they are defending this Oklahoma side inbound.

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As for a full possession, watch here. This is what I’m talking about with the rotations. As the trap happens, Carter is guarding two guys and cheats up to take away the easy pass. That forces Oklahoma State to throw the lob cross court, giving him enough time to recover and not let Oklahoma State attack off the press. What happens from there? Well, you know how this ends.

This West Virginia team is special, man. They have the star in Jevon Carter. They have the roleplayers around him and they are only going to get better when Esa Ahmad returns. Many scouts think Ahmad can be an NBA player and more importantly he’s someone who can get his own bucket and help in the halfcourt offensive sets. Again, that’s sort of been the problem with this program when it became Press Virginia. Can they score in the halfcourt and what happens when the game slows down. They are doing just that. Don’t get me wrong, they are going to lose games in the Big 12 because the Big 12 is loaded, but this is a team that should be a top-2/3 seed in the NCAA Tournament when it’s all said and done and a favorite for the Final Four.