The start of conference play is less than two weeks away. Beginning on New Year’s Eve, every game but one will be a battle against a Big 12 foe for West Virginia.
WVU (9-2) has played well to start this season, with its two hiccups coming against now-No. 1 Purdue and an Xavier team that, like the Mountaineers, is just outside of the latest AP Top 25 rankings.
Offensively, Bob Huggins’ team is shooting at nearly a 50 percent success rate, is tied for second among power-conference teams in bench points per game (29.64), and is home to two of the most efficient three-man groups in the country.
Defensively, West Virginia continues to force turnovers at a high rate – 17.09 per game.
Despite all the positives and the fact that WVU will be a heavy favorite against Stony Brook (4-8) on Thursday night, Huggins isn’t looking ahead to Big 12 play.
“After tonight, you have to think less (about that) and worry about Stony Brook,” Huggins said. “We’ll worry about that when the time comes. Let’s beat Stony Brook, and then we’ll start worrying about league play.”
There are some key areas that Huggins would like to see his group clean up before Big 12 play begins.
The first, and possibly most glaring, is turnovers. West Virginia is averaging 12.5 giveaways per game on offense.
“Throw it to the guy with the same color shirt you have on and try to keep it between the lines,” Huggins said Sunday when asked what his message to the team was during a second-half timeout. “I think that helped. I don’t know why we just start throwing it around for some reason. We were careless with it. We’ve got to do a better job.”
Huggins added that if the turnover problem doesn’t get fixed, it could come back to haunt the Mountaineers down the line.
Meanwhile, points allowed in the paint have been the leading issue on defense.
West Virginia matched or outperformed its opponents’ paint production in each of the first seven games. However, the Mountaineers have been outscored in the painted area in three of the last four contests.
While defending the paint has been a specific issue, WVU has allowed too many points, in general, for the head coach’s liking.
“That’s what he talked about,” senior guard Erik Stevenson said of Buffalo’s first-half point total. “Well, they did that in the second half too. So, he’s going to be talking about that all week.”
Stevenson, when asked, noted that the Bulls’ points in the paint would be another number that Huggins would key in on. Defending ball screens properly has been another conversation piece between the Bear and his unit.
“We were guarding it all week in practice. We had like four or five days of scouting these guys, and I thought we handled it pretty well in practice,” said Stevenson. “We’ve got to tighten some things up in our rotations, which I think we did in the second half a lot better. But, also, some of those mistakes were from some young guys. So, we just got to coach them up and obviously tune some things. So, we’ll be fine.”
West Virginia has one more game to do that fine-tuning before the holiday break that leads into Big 12 play. The Mountaineers will face Stony Brook in Morgantown on Thursday, Dec. 22.
Conference play begins nine days after that on the road at Kansas State.