Fast vs. slow

BUFFALO, N.Y. – West Virginia coach Bob Huggins understands the difficulty of facing a team that operates at Missouri’s frenetic pace because he used to employ a similar approach.

Huggins led Cincinnati to the Final Four in 1992 and a regional final the following year by coaching teams that thrived on full-court pressure. He has enjoyed a similar amount of success at West Virginia with a team that operates at a slower tempo.

Michael Dixon and Missouri can surprise teams with their press.
(Don Heupel / AP)

West Virginia’s East Regional second-round game Sunday at the HSBC Arena represents a contrast in styles between the Mountaineers’ half-court offense and Missouri coach Mike Anderson’s bid to play the “fastest 40 minutes in basketball.”

“We pressed for a long time when I was at Cincinnati,” Huggins recalled, “and I think that what we tried to do was have 10 better guys than the other team had. We may not have five better, but we had 10 better. I think Mike does a lot of that. They use their bench. We’re going to have to use our bench. We understand that. But I think the other thing that happens, in all honesty, is timeouts in this tournament are about an hour-and-a-half, so you have a lot of time to catch your breath.”

As the No. 10 seed in the East Region, Missouri (23-10) is the clear underdog against No. 2 seed West Virginia (28-6). The Mountaineers’ plethora of talented forwards could cause problems for Missouri’s injury-riddled frontcourt, and Missouri doesn’t have any players of Da’Sean Butler’s caliber.

Yet Missouri’s ball-hawking guards create their own matchup problems. The Tigers lead the nation with 11.1 steals per game by playing a style of basketball that seems well-suited for the postseason, when opponents aren’t as familiar with it.

“Big 12 teams are used to it,” Missouri guard Kim English said. “They have a scheme to break it every year. They know what to do, they feel they have a way to break the press and they’re usually pretty efficient at it. In Big 12 play, we just want to find a way to win. In tournaments like this one, the first team you play usually gets a week to prepare for it, but hopefully it can help you out with the second team you play because they only have a day to prepare for it.”

Missouri’s postseason record under Anderson supports English’s comment.

The Tigers advanced to the West Regional final last year by harassing befuddled opponents with their full-court pressure. Missouri used a similar strategy Friday in an 86-78 victory over Clemson.

Missouri forced 20 turnovers and outscored Clemson 22-2 in fast-break points to pull the upset. Missouri’s nine-man rotation allowed the Tigers to play the same fast pace the entire game without worrying about fatigue.

“Physically, mentally and even emotionally, I mean in every possible way I feel [the press] will wear teams down,” Missouri guard Zaire Taylor said. “Teams start to get on each other, start to yell at each other, or coaches get on you. When we say pressure busts the pipe, that’s in every way.

“[If] you’re breaking the press in the first 10 minutes of the game, come the last 10 minutes, you’re starting to get a little more tired. When I’m out of the game, now you have Mike Dixon, a fresh body, on you. When he’s tired, Miguel Paul is coming after you. It never stops. It seems like the number of bodies never ends. That’s how we try to wear a team down.”

West Virginia ranks fourth out of 16 Big East teams in turnover margin (plus-1.82) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.34), but the Mountaineers haven’t faced a defense quite like this one.

The closest West Virginia has come to facing this type of pressure was in regular-season victories over Cleveland State and Louisville. The Mountaineers committed 17 turnovers in an 80-78 win over Cleveland State and had just 11 giveaways in a 77-74 triumph over Louisville.

West Virginia’s players heaped plenty of praise on Missouri’s defense Saturday, yet they remain confident they can control the tempo Sunday. If West Virginia slows down the pace, Missouri has little chance of winning the game.

“We’re going to play the way we want to play them,” West Virginia guard Darryl Bryant said. “We won’t let them alter our game. We’re going to make it a half-court game instead of running and playing helter-skelter with them.”

That’s easier said than done.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Follow him on Twitter. He can be reached at
Updated Saturday, Mar 20, 2010