WVU Basketball

Without Konate, Bolden, WVU defense continues to lack "identity"

Huggins on struggling defense: "It doesn't seem to bother us"

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Offensive struggles from WVU men’s basketball have been the main storyline for much of the season. Lengthy shooting droughts and abundant turnovers have plagued the team during its 10-14 start.

But lately, the team’s defense has been just as bad, if not worse, at times.

West Virginia gave up seven dunks in the second half of a 75-53 loss to Texas, while watching a six-point halftime deficit balloon into a 25-point Longhorn advantage in under 10:00.

Head coach Bob Huggins said he has experimented with defensive sets more this season than with any other team, but the Mountaineers still can’t find a solution.

“Looking back on it, it has probably given them a crutch,” said Huggins. “We just don’t guard. We don’t play with a lot of intensity. It doesn’t seem to bother us.”

It’s a peculiar situation for a Huggins-coached team. Last year, the Mountaineers sported the Big 12’s defensive player of the year in Jevon Carter and another all-defensive team honoree in Sagaba Konate. With Carter now in the NBA and Konate sidelined with a knee injury for the past two months, junior guard Chase Harler said the Mountaineers are still searching for an “identity” on defense.

“Just breakdowns,” said Harler. “Loose balls we used to get in the past, tough rebounds we’re used to getting. In order for us to win some more games, we’re going to have to get back to those ways.”

The Mountaineers give up more than 75 points per game, which has ranked them dead last in the conference for most of the season. But it has become even more obvious in the last few weeks that a large part of West Virginia’s defensive struggles – and Huggins’ need to experiment – links back to injuries to two key veterans.

Since defeating Kansas Jan. 19, WVU has lost five of six. Its average margin of defeat in those losses is 21 points, as the Mountaineers have conceded 81.3 points per game during that span.

Junior guard James “Beetle” Bolden has missed the last four games with a high ankle sprain, and has been limited by other injuries throughout the season. While his 12.2 points per game are missed on offense, he’s also the only Mountaineer who has recorded more steals (19) than games played (18) and is one steal shy of tying for the team lead.

Then, there’s Konate, who hasn’t played since Dec. 8. But in that seven-block performance over Pitt, Konate proved he’s still among the nation’s best rim protectors.

West Virginia’s defense was built to thrive with Konate in it, Huggins said, and making adjustments without him hasn’t come easily.

“What we had planned on doing, we couldn’t do because we didn’t have Sags,” said Huggins. “You can’t open the floor up the way we opened the floor up when we had Sags – and before that we had Elijah [Macon], so we had people back there. And then Sags is gone, so if you go back to the Pitt game, that’s the way that we played before, and then Sags hasn’t played since.”

West Virginia was by no means perfect in that game against Pitt: It shot 40 percent, went 5-21 from 3-point range and committed 26 turnovers, which is tied for its season high. In a way, that game foreshadowed some of the offensive woes that would strike in Big 12 play.

The performance also marked the only time this season that WVU won when it shot 40 percent or worse. It held Pitt to 31.5 percent shooting and forced 24 Panther turnovers. It’s an example of one of the few times this season that WVU has won with defense.

Harler hopes the Mountaineers can win that way during the second half of Big 12 play.  

“Everything’s doable,” said Harler. “It’s just the little things, and our attention to detail has got to get a lot better.”

He added: “I feel like, once we figure out what we need to do on defense, I think we can win some more games.”

But with just seven regular season contests remaining, the Mountaineers are running out of time.

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