West Virginia has winning formula down to a D

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Missouri’s defense earned all the attention. West Virginia’s defense earned the win.

No. 2 seed West Virginia defeated No. 10 seed Missouri 68-59 in an East Regional second-round game Sunday at the HSBC Arena by relying on the same formula that eventually could land the Mountaineers in the Final Four for the first time since 1959.

Get Da’Sean Butler plenty of shots and play suffocating half-court defense.

Butler, the man who conquered New York City at the Big East tournament last weekend, took over the rest of the Empire State this week. He went 12-for-13 from the free-throw line on his way to 28 points, nearly twice as many as anyone else on either team.

Da'Sean Butler scored 28 points, and the Mountaineers' defense took care of the rest.
Richard Mackson/US Presswire

But the story of this game was the way West Virginia controlled the tempo.

West Virginia (29-6) never allowed Missouri’s vaunted full-court pressure defense to make much of an impact. When the Mountaineers forced Missouri (23-11) into more of a half-court game, the Tigers couldn’t get their offense into any kind of rhythm.

“I said [Saturday] we’re going to guard, they’re going to have a hard time scoring against us,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose team advanced to an East Regional semifinal Thursday against No. 11 seed Washington at Syracuse, N.Y. “Everybody has a hard time scoring against us. Thank God they do.”

Few people were listening to Huggins at the time because Missouri’s defense was stealing all the attention, just as the Tigers typically steal anything else in their path.

Missouri entered the day leading the nation with 11.1 steals per game. In an 86-78 first-round victory over Clemson, Missouri forced 20 turnovers and outscored its opponent 22-2 in fast-break points.

West Virginia committed just 10 turnovers and allowed only two fast-break points Sunday. Huggins knew how to beat the Tigers’ full-court press because he had coached against Missouri’s Mike Anderson several times back when Huggins was at Cincinnati and Anderson was at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

Huggins taught West Virginia point guards Joe Mazzulla and Darryl “Truck” Bryant what to expect. The Mountaineers never wore down or allowed themselves to get intimidated by Missouri’s pressure.

“It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be,” Mazzulla said. “We watched three or four game films. There’s an initial trap, which is kind of a scare. Once you get out of the trap, it’s just a matter of one-on-one, man-to-man. Huggs really challenged Truck and I to just take care of the pressure. If you can’t play one-on-one as a point guard, then you probably shouldn’t be playing.”

This game hardly resembled the “fastest 40 minutes in basketball,” as Missouri brands its frenetic approach. At times, this half-court slugfest seemed more like the slowest 40 minutes in basketball.

Consider that after Devin Ebanks’ jumper put West Virginia ahead 23-17 with 9:03 left in the half, the Mountaineers wouldn’t make another basket for nearly 13 minutes, yet Missouri shaved only a single point off West Virginia’s lead during that drought.

“We had opportunities to really gain some momentum, even in the second half,” Anderson said. “I thought we got the game speeded up a little bit, disrupted. We had some lay-ups that we normally cash in on, and just didn’t. When you don’t do that, you don’t make it happen.”

West Virginia can look forward to a similar tempo struggle in the next round.

Washington (26-9) loves to play at a fast pace and is much less comfortable in a half-court game. Looming in the regional final is a potential matchup with No. 1 seed Kentucky and John Wall, who runs up and down the court as fast as any point guard in the country.

“It comes down to, do we defend them better than they score,” Huggins said.

West Virginia believes it can win that battle every time.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.
Updated Sunday, Mar 21, 2010