A defense in permanent hyper-mode was the catalyst for the Mountaineers’ first tournament appearance in three years and a surprising run to the Sweet 16. But the press, and anything else, for that matter, didn’t work in a 78-39 loss to against top-ranked Kentucky on Thursday night.
West Virginia’s worst-ever loss in the NCAA Tournament was another glaring reminder of their struggles to consistently step up on offense.
”I’m just going to get right back at it and that’s all I can do,” forward Devin Williams said. ”I can’t do nothing about it but just get in the gym, watch film and get back at it. It’s fuel for me.
”I’ve got two more years under my belt. I don’t know, I’m gonna shoot `til my arm falls off.”
The shooting woes were a mainstay throughout the season.
West Virginia finished 288th nationally in field-goal percentage at 40.8, tying for the worst in coach Bob Huggins’ eight seasons. The Mountaineers didn’t surpass 50 percent over the final 19 games, relying on its offensive rebounding to get more scoring chances.
West Virginia used that offensive formula to reach the tournament for the sixth time in Huggins’ eight seasons and the first since 2012.
”I think we’re back where we’re used to being – where I’m used to being, anyway,” Huggins said.
A team that finished beyond expectations with a 25-10 record bids farewell to leading scorer Juwan Staten and fellow starting guard Gary Browne yet returns four of its top five scorers next season.
But those returnees were responsible for less than half of the team’s scoring production and 42 percent of its turnovers.
First-year players Jonathan Holton, Daxter Miles Jr., Jevon Carter, Jaysean Paige, Elijah Macon and Tarik Phillip along with veteran Williams will form the nucleus of the team.
Williams averaged 11.6 points and 8.1 rebounds as a sophomore. Miles, a freshman, started every game, Holton, a junior transfer, came on strong toward the end to lead West Virginia in offensive rebounds. The Mountaineers were No. 1 in the nation in the category at 16.4 per game.
”We’ve got a lot of young, inexperienced guys that are only going to get better, and I think these three games of the tournament are going to make us better,” Huggins said. ”We’ll be more seasoned a year from now.”
Last summer, Huggins took some advice from former Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey, implemented ”Press Virginia” and found immediate improvements on a defense that was criticized for taking plays off a year ago.
Huggins rotated players freely. Ten of them averaged at least 12 minutes per game and West Virginia led the nation with 10.7 steals and forcing 19.3 turnovers per game.
But the energy spent with the full-court press didn’t always translate to the offense, which was already in a hole when Eron Harris transferred to Michigan State and Terry Henderson headed to North Carolina State last spring, leaving the Mountaineers without two of their top three scorers.
West Virginia was 51st nationally in points this season and 288th with a field-goal percentage of 40.8. The Mountaineers didn’t surpass 50 percent over the final 19 games, relying on its offensive rebounding to overcome its shooting woes.
West Virginia finished tied for fourth in the Big 12, two spots higher than expected. Wins over Buffalo and Maryland to start the NCAA Tournament sent the Mountaineers into the matchup with Kentucky with confidence.
Then the bottom fell out.
Only six players scored Thursday night for West Virginia, which made just 13 field goals and tied a season low by making 24.1 percent of its field goals.
It also marked the third loss of 20 points over more in the tournament in the past six seasons. It was most lopsided loss in any game for the Mountaineers in a decade and tied for the fewest points scored under Huggins.
Miles, who had boldly predicted a West Virginia victory over Kentucky but was held scoreless in 19 minutes, said Huggins’ message to the team after the game was ”learn from this and just work hard for next year.”