Jeff Eisenberg, Yahoo Sports (http://sports.yahoo.com/news/how-west-virginias-press-became-the-nations-most-intimidating-defense-043329998.html)
The night before the most lopsided loss of his 26-year head coaching career, New Hampshire’s Bill Herrion scarcely slept.
He already sensed his Wildcats were grossly unprepared for the 40 minutes of smothering full-court pressure that awaited them.
They only had a single day to study film of how West Virginia deploys its traps. They also had no way to mimic the Mountaineers’ aggressiveness in practice. Even giving the scout team a sixth defender didn’t sufficiently imitate the difficulty of inbounding the ball, advancing it up court and trying to run set offense.
“It’s honestly very, very hard for a team at our level to try to simulate the speed, the athletic ability and the relentlessness of their defense,” Herrion said. “It’s constant, nonstop pressure. There’s nobody else in the country who does what they do.”
Such are the concerns of every coach who has prepared for college basketball’s most intimidating defense so far this season. Twelfth-ranked West Virginia has reeled off eight wins in its first nine games by unleashing a ball-hawking full-court press that’s more plunderous yet more disciplined than previous incarnations.
In its first nine games this season, West Virginia has harassed opponents into turnovers on a national-best 34.7 percent of their possessions. Not only is that better than the Mountaineers’ rate at this time the past two seasons, it’s also easily the highest rate in the 16 years that cover Ken Pomeroy’s database.
Equally encouraging for West Virginia is that it has generated 26 turnovers per game without fouling too often or surrendering too many easy transition baskets. Opponents are shooting a mere 37.8 percent from the field against the Mountaineers and are attempting 9.5 fewer free throws per game this season than they did last season.
To West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, those numbers reflect his team’s increased comfort level with the full-court press after three seasons running it full-time. That’s encouraging to Huggins even if some slippage is inevitable once the Mountaineers begin Big 12 play and encounter stronger opponents who are more familiar with the press.
“Hopefully we’ve gotten a little better coaching it and a little better playing it,” Huggins said. “It continues to evolve as people continue to do different things to attack it. We constantly have to come up with different ways to fight that and to keep making teams uncomfortable.”
West Virginia owes its success with full-court pressure to Huggins’ willingness to reinvent himself 37 years into his decorated coaching career.
Slow to adjust to the Big 12’s arduous travel schedule and unfamiliar style of play, West Virginia finished 13-19 in its first season in the league and lost in the opening round of the NIT the following year. Huggins hadn’t missed two straight NCAA tournaments in more than two decades, so he decided it was time to make a change before the 2014-15 season.
Full-court pressure was an appealing option to Huggins because it accentuated West Virginia’s ample depth and athleticism and covered up its poor outside shooting. The transfer of second- and third-leading scorers Eron Harris and Terry Henderson left the Mountaineers lacking perimeter threats besides standout Juwan Staten.
Hoping for some advice on whether to press and how best to teach it, Huggins sought out an old adversary hailed as a master of full-court pressure. Ex-Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey took the Vikings to their lone Sweet 16 in 1986 using a press that he nicknamed the “Run and Stun.” As he is quick to point out, he also inflicted some damage on Huggins, who coached at nearby Akron in those days.
“We played six times,” Mackey said with a chuckle. “The Run and Stun won five of them.”
At a time when most coaches are too conservative to commit to pressing for all 40 minutes, Mackey describes himself as one of the last of the true believers. He’s adamant full-court pressure can be especially effective now in an era rife with players who are longer, faster and more athletic but often less skilled.
When Huggins first approached Mackey at the LeBron James Skills Academy 2 1/2 years ago, the West Virginia coach was still reticent to go all in on full-court pressure because he believed it might take years to properly implement. Mackey persuaded his longtime friend he could teach it far more quickly since his roster was well suited to it and his returning players were already accustomed to pressuring the ball and denying passing lanes.
“I told him, ‘Bobby, the only way to do this is with both feet in,’” Mackey said. “‘You’re all in, or you’re out. Either you sink or you swim.
“‘When you first get started, it’s going to be a fourth-grade press. In two weeks, it will be a seventh-grade press. In a month and a half, it will be an 11th-grade press. In two and a half months, hopefully it will be a college press. And then when you keep working on it day after day for a whole season, now you’ll have the best pressure in the country.”
Huggins emerged from a series of conversations with Mackey with a clear vision for the future of his program: West Virginia would evolve into Press Virginia.
He’d install a pressure defense modeled after the Run and Stun and remain steadfast in his committment to it. He’d favor a rotation of 10 or more players to keep his team fresh and wear down opponents. And he’d seek out prospects with the toughness, mobility and motor to thrive running a press and the unselfishness necessary to accept never playing more than 18-25 minutes per night.
In year one of the full-court pressure experiment, West Virginia won 25 games and reached the Sweet 16 despite fouling more than any team in the nation and surrendering way too many transition layups. In year two, the Mountaineers won 26 games and finished second in the Big 12 but still committed fouls in droves. This season, West Virginia appears to have fixed many of its previous problems without sacrificing any of the aggressiveness that makes the press fearsome.
“Three years of practicing it, you get a little better each day,” senior forward Nathan Adrian said. “It’s definitely a conscious effort not to foul. We’re keeping our hands up and not reaching so much. We’re making plays with our feet instead of trying to reach and steal the ball.”
It’s Adrian who has inherited the most important role from graduated forward Jonathan Holton. The 6-foot-9 senior plays at the top of the press, meaning he’s responsible for guarding the inbound pass, communicating with his teammates and consistently taking the right angles defensively.
Once the ball is inbound, West Virginia will try to force the dribbler into certain hot spots on the floor that are most vulnerable to traps. Adrian and a swarming guard will converge on the ball, two other Mountaineers will try to deny the most obvious passes and a big man will remain at the other end of the floor to guard against a long pass and protect the rim.
Even if opposing teams push the ball past mid-court, West Virginia won’t let them run set offense. The Mountaineers extend their man-to-man defense out to 25 feet, frequently trap ball screens and sporadically send two defenders running at the ball to get the ball out of a playmaker’s hands and force others to make split-second decisions.
“The overriding thing is we want to make you really uncomfortable,” Huggins said. “Where we set our traps is the most important. We want to force you into an area that puts you in a bad position.”
Figuring out a pattern can be difficult for opposing teams because West Virginia often varies its approach. Sometimes they won’t guard the inbound passer. Other times they’ll run a zone press instead of man-to-man. A staff member also charts what sectors of the floor opponents inbound the ball to and where it goes afterward, enabling Huggins to subsequently tweak mid-game where the trap points will be.
Whatever variation of the press West Virginia runs, opposing coaches say the key to beating it is to attack in transition when you cross mid-court with numbers in your favor. Quick shots can accelerate the pace and feed into the Mountaineers’ hands when they misfire, but otherwise there’s no penalty for employing full-court pressure.
Of course, it’s one thing to know how to attack the press, and another thing to actually be able to do it. Of the Mountaineers’ nine opponents so far this season, only glacial-paced Virginia has coughed the ball up fewer than 19 times in a single game.
“It’s all great when you’re in the conference room talking about it beforehand,” said Virginia Military Institute coach Dan Earl, whose team committed 19 turnovers in a 90-55 loss at West Virginia on Saturday. “Then you get out there and they’re faster than you thought, tougher than you thought and your guys are a little more shell-shocked than you thought. The size, speed and relentlessness, you can’t mimic it fully.”
The staggering number of takeaways West Virginia has piled up this season is proof of that. Manhattan coughed it up a remarkable 40 times, Western Carolina gave it away 34 times and Illinois proved that major-conference teams are far from immune by racking up 24 turnovers.
Few struggled more than New Hampshire, which was just as unprepared for West Virginia’s press as Herrion feared. The Wildcats turned the ball over 34 times in a 100-41 wipeout, an outcome that had Herrion in awe of the Mountaineers but also vowing not to schedule them anymore.
Said Herrion, “I don’t want to go through that again.”