COLUMBUS, Ohio – University at Buffalo coach Bobby Hurley had his offense practice Thursday against a defense that had seven men on the court.
And Hurley himself was one of the defenders.
Such are the extreme measures UB is taking to get ready to face West Virginia’s full-court-pressing defense in the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
“They’re going to challenge us for 40 minutes, and it’s never gonna stop,” Hurley said. “They just keep coming at you. It’s going to be a challenge.”
The 18th-ranked Mountaineers have earned the moniker “Press Virginia,” because of the havoc their defense has caused.
West Virginia leads the nation in steals, averaging 10.9 a game. It leads the nation in forcing turnovers, 19.6 a game. It leads the nation in turnover percentage, creating a giveaway on 28.6 percent of opponent possessions.
“We may have a few more turnovers than usual in this game,” Hurley said. “We need to try to eliminate the live-ball turnovers that just lead to baskets for them, because we want to try to make them work to score against our defense.”
UB is a good ball-handling team. The Bulls ranked 35th in the country in protecting the ball, making turnovers on only 16 percent of their possessions, according to the analytics site kenpom.com.
UB plays with two true point guards, sophomore Shannon Evans and freshman Lamonte Bearden. Third guard Jarryn Skeete, who plays 75 percent of UB’s minutes, was a point guard in high school.
“I think if we stay true to our principles, be strong with the ball, make the right play at the right time, we’ll be fine,” Evans said.
The full-court press isn’t the only ball-handling concern for UB. West Virginia runs a variety of traps – double-teams – in both the back court and after the opponent gets the ball over the half-court line.
“This game comes down to more of me trusting my guys that they’re going to be able to improvise and make some plays,” Hurley said. “Because we run a lot of set plays, and I just have a really strong feeling we’re not going to be allowed to run a lot of them.”
West Virginia’s traps force opponents to play fast and get out of rhythm.
“In a game I watched against Iowa State,” Hurley said, “Iowa State didn’t run any plays. They have one of the best coaches in the country at designing offense in Fred Hoiberg. West Virginia trapped them all over the place and didn’t allow them to run anything.”
West Virginia (23-9) is not a huge team by the standards of a top-20 opponent. Its starters stand 6-foot-9, 6-9 and 6-7. But its big men are versatile and athletic. They switch on a lot of traps and screens and are able to stay with smaller ball-handlers.
“I don’t know if their big guys can stay in front of me and Lamonte,” Evans said. “They do switch a lot and double team.”
“It’s Shannon Evans’ and Lamonte Bearden’s responsibility to handle pressure,” Hurley said. “Those two guys can’t beat it alone. We all have to be ready to help and move the ball quick. At times we’ll have to try to beat it to score. If they get back properly, then we’re going to have to pull it out and run some clock. We’ll do a variety of things to try to handle it.”
Because of its quality guards, UB (23-9) did not face a lot of full-court pressure in Mid-American Conference play.
However, the Bulls were pressed full-court by No. 1-ranked Kentucky in November.
The Bulls beat the press handily in the first half, which led to some wide-open jump shots for Skeete. UB led, 38-33, at intermission. Kentucky opened the second half with the press and had a bit more success, forcing four turnovers in the first seven minutes. Kentucky went on to win, 71-52. Still, UB’s 17 turnovers were not an embarrassing total. It averaged 11.3 a game overall.
“They pressed us early, and we handled it well and we broke it,” Hurley said. “When they separated from us, there were a few times we didn’t handle it well. I think also the crowd affected us and made it worse. … We’ve been tested a lot more since then, and I think they’ll be ready for it.”