The slow starts that have plagued West Virginia might no longer be the issue. Against Missouri it's not how you start, it's what's left in your legs and your heart when it's time to finish.
A pressing defense that covers full court and can extend the game's duration makes 10th-seeded Missouri a unique and worrisome challenge for the second-seeded Mountaineers this afternoon at HSBC Arena. If the Tigers (23-10) turn turnovers into transition baskets, they'll spend less time dealing with West Virginia's long, tenacious defenders out of the half-court set. Similarly, if the Mountaineers (28-6) can beat Missouri's pressure with flow, their collection of talented open-floor players will set sail for the rim with alacrity.
"They're a very fast-paced team," said Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia's All-Big East guard. "They press. They're a pressure team. They do what they have to do defensively and make everybody pick up their pace to play to their pace, which is extremely, you know, chaos in a way. It's chaos.
"For us to come out successful, we can't fall into that," Butler said. "We need to take care of the ball and just do what we do. Play defense, rebound and win the game."
If the Mountaineers handle Missouri's heat they can thank a mid-major foe for helping elevate them to the challenge. West Virginia narrowly escaped a humbling defeat at Cleveland State on Dec. 19, winning on a last-second basket by Butler after facing relentless pressure much of the game.
"We generally work against the press every two or three days . . . because we figured we were going to be ahead in some games and people are going to have to press us and we have to be able to handle that," said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. "So we've continually worked on it."
Missouri's frenetic style is the orchestration of coach Mike Anderson, an assistant to Nolan Richardson at Arkansas when the Razorbacks unleashed "40 Minutes of Hell." The Tigers' version has been dubbed "The Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball," an apt description for a team that leads the nation on average in steals and forced turnovers.
Missouri coaxes the opposition into nearly 20 turnovers a game. The Mountaineers gave it away 17 times in the Cleveland State game and 18 times on two other occasions. Clearly protecting the basketball will be a point of emphasis for point guards Darryl Bryant and Joe Mazzulla, along with Butler and Devin Ebanks.
"It's the same thing," Bryant said. "I have to take care of the ball. Me and Da'Sean and Devin, that's who is taking care of the ball. We have to try to play a half-court game and try to slow the game down.
"It's probably going to be difficult but it won't be that difficult because we're going to play the way we want to play them," 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."
Often it's the cumulative effect of Missouri's style that erodes the will and good sense of its opponents. Beating pressure once or twice is less strenuous a task that beating it time and again.
"I think the mental aspect of the game is very important, especially with the pressure game that we put on," said Missouri guard J.T. Tiller. "If we can get you psychologically and mentally out of doing what you want to do, then that really plays into what we're trying to do to be successful in the game."
"I feel like it's supposed to wear a team down," said guard Zaire Taylor. "Teams start to get on each other, start to yell at other, or coaches get on you. . . . Physically, I mean, 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. I think it [takes] its toll physically, mentally, emotionally."
West Virginia spotted Morgan State a 10-0 lead in the opening round before rebounding for an emphatic victory. Missouri's ability to dictate tempo and inflict psychological anguish suggests the Mountaineers had best be ready to go the full 40 minutes. As West Virginia forward Kevin Jones said, "It's more about being mentally prepared than physically prepared."