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November 23, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Defense on top of mind of Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN — You could not ignore the 101 points that were twinkling on the scoreboards at either end of the Coliseum court as West Virginia University’s victory over Georgia Southern came to a merciful end on Thursday night.

It was the first time a West Virginia team had scored 100 points since the fifth game Bob Huggins had coached at his alma mata, but that didn’t seem to mean a whole to him or his players.

His mind was, as it is when he rises in the morning and goes to bed at night, was on defense.

See, he’s old school that way, firmly believing that you play offense for show and defense for the dough.

It is a lesson he is getting through to his players, too, for in the first half their defense was stifling against the Eagles, a team which came in with two 100-plus games to its credit in its first three games of the year.

At halftime Georgia Southern possessed just 26 points, was shooting just 27 percent from the field, 21.2 percent from 3-point range.

“The defense improved the first half (over previous games),” Huggins admitted.

It had been a classic defensive performance, one that turned to muck in the second half as Southern shot 55.6 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from 3.

Instead of rave reviews from their coach for a 101-68 victory, they got some rants along with the raves from a man who rants with the best of them.

It seems he made them understand and we will allow guard Eron Harris be the spokesperson in that regard.

“We’re giving up too many points,” he said. “We’re giving up more points per game than anyone in the Big 12. That’s why Huggs was mad after the game. We were fighting to keep them under 50 and we could have done it, but we came out and played lazy in the second half.”

“The defense improved the first half (over previous games),” Huggins admitted.

It was enough to make it an enjoyable halftime chat.

But the human side of a team that had put forth a superhuman first-half effort came out in that second half, the game already safely secured.

“We didn’t guard as hard the second half, obviously,” Huggins said. “The first half we did a pretty good job. We closed in lanes better. We made it harder for them to find people. We still did things wrong. They had the same guy open in the corner four times in a row. That should never happen. That may happen a second time but not a third time.”

Part of the reason is just being human.

Offense is fun; defense is work.

True, you do get credit for some defense in the box score – shots blocked and steals. But for the most part it is work credited only by teammates and coaches, often not even until the next day when you see it on film

Perhaps the best way to understand how little credit playing defense gets in sports – be it basketball or football or boxing – name a defensive player who ever won the Heisman Trophy

’Nuff said on that subject.

“I don’t honestly think we played near the defense we need to play,” Harris said. “I’m just being really critical of our game, even though we scored 100 points. I just want to be really critical because right now is the preparation stage.”

What he is saying is that these games are almost like NFL preseason games, except they go on your record and influence the committee come tournament time, so winning is important. Still, the purpose is to learn prior to Big 12 play.

Because of that, with a young team and a lot of new players, Huggins put together an easier schedule than a year ago. For example, they opened last year with powerful Gonzaga and were completely blown away, 84-50.

There was a lesson there.

“I’ve seen Gonzaga play on defense. They play the full 40 minutes, no matter who comes in the game … the backups, the walk-ons, they play like they are a starter. I want to model after that,” Harris said. “Against these guys we didn’t play defense in the second half. We all played offense, but we didn’t play defense. And we’re all guilty of it.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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