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Defense propels WVU into Final Four

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By Tony Dobies
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia coach Bob Huggins considered his team's defense a weakness heading into Big East play four months ago.

Now, it is the Mountaineers' strength heading into the Final Four this weekend.

West Virginia has held opponents to fewer than 70 points in its past 10 games -- all wins. Since the end of the regular season, only Kentucky has scored more than 60 points against the Mountaineers' stingy defense.

"I didn't think we got to the ball early. We became too man-conscious. We didn't help each other as much as we need to," Huggins said of the team's defensive issues early in the season. "But in the last three weeks to a month, we've really done a lot better."

WVU is giving up 57.75 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. He credits the length of his team, with players such as forward Devin Ebanks and John Flowers, as to why the Mountaineers' defense has been so strong as of late. Huggins said it has been necessity that has brought along the defensive emphasis.

"We aren't going to score a lot of points," Huggins said. "Our guys want to win, so they know they have to do a good job guarding."

When West Virginia takes on Duke in the Final Four on Saturday in Indianapolis at approximately 8:47 p.m., it will pit two of the best defensive teams in the country against each other.

Duke is giving up 56.25 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, which is the best average among Final Four teams. Butler and Michigan State are giving up an average of 56.75 and 67.75 points per game, respectively, in the NCAA Tournament.

"Both (Duke and WVU) haven't shot the ball well, so it makes both of us as teams understand that if we have a chance to win we are going to have to win every possession on the defensive end," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We play defense in a little bit different manner, but the motivation to play it and rebound is the same."

Under Huggins, West Virginia is known to play the rugged man-to-man defense he has been deployed at his previous coaching stops. But against Kentucky on Saturday in the Elite Eight, the Mountaineers took a trip to the past, starting out the game in a 1-3-1 zone and playing nearly the entire game in that defense.

"We had to do it," WVU senior Wellington Smith said. "We definitely didn't play Huggins' basketball, but we made it work."

The Wildcats has 16 turnovers against just 10 assists in WVU's 73-66 win.

The defense was a trademark for former WVU coach John Beilein before he left for Michigan. When Huggins took over in 2007, he decided to keep the defense in his back pocket. He learned the intricacies of the 1-3-1 defense from WVU players who apprenticed in Beilein's system, such as former guard Alex Ruoff and current forward Da'Sean Butler.

Huggins has used it as a complement to the man-to-man defense while at WVU. This season, WVU has used the 1-3-1 zone at crucial times late in games to catch opponents off guard.

In nearly every game, it has worked. The Mountaineers used it throughout the Big East Tournament semifinal game against Notre Dame and late in the final game of the conference tournament against Georgetown.

But never has Huggins used the 1-3-1 throughout an entire game.

"We came in thinking that we would change defenses on them," Huggins said after the Kentucky win. "Halfway through the first half, though, we decided the 1-3-1 was better, so we were going to ride it as long as we could."

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