Maryland and West Virginia will tip off the NCAA Tournament’s round of 64 on Thursday at 12:15 p.m. in a matchup between two teams who have had similar trajectories throughout the season and are evenly matched with a balanced scoring attack.
This is an intriguing eight vs. nine matchup that will likely come down to the wire, which is reflected by the gambling line that has West Virginia as a two-point favorite. The winner will move on to face Alabama or Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the round of 32, and the loser’s season will end as the first team bounced from the opening round of the big dance.
West Virginia teams have been billed as ‘Press Virginia’ over the years because of their tenacious press that trips up opposing offenses. But that isn’t this team’s identity. In fact, as much as Bob Huggins is known as the press master, his team hasn't had a press rate higher than 10% since the 2019-20 season. Back in the 2017-18 season, West Virginia’s press rate was 35%.
That isn't to say West Virginia won’t show a full-court press, but West Virginia should worry more about Maryland’s press than the other way around. West Virginia’s offense carries it. The Mountaineers’ adjusted offensive efficiency rating is the 15th best in the country, according to KenPom.com.
There are intriguing individual matchups both coaches will try to exploit, but I looked at three key components that will determine the outcome of the game: Maryland’s transition defense vs. West Virginia’s transition offense, rebounding and put-back opportunities and the pick-and-roll.
Let me preface this piece by saying this is March Madness, and with it comes chaos and unpredictability. Of course teams game plan for their opponents and usually have confidence in their matchups and plans to breed success. But the variability is so high in a one-and-done tournament setting that whatever someone thinks they know about a team or a matchup may not matter when the games begin on Thursday.
The role of the transition game
Without having done a deep dive on West Virginia just yet, Maryland head coach Kevin Willard lamented his team’s transition defense and said it would be key to beating West Virginia. He was spot on.
Maryland gives up a whopping 1.083 points per possession in transition and ranks in the 16th percentile, which is below average, according to Synergy.
The last time Maryland took the court — a 70-60 loss to Indiana in the Big Ten quarterfinals — its transition defense was noticeably bad and a big reason Indiana made a second-half surge.
Instead of running back to build a wall and locate Indiana’s guards, Hakim Hart reaches at mid-court, effectively taking himself out of the play. That forces Patrick Emilien to play the ball, leaving Miller Kopp wide open for a corner three.
Maryland’s press has been effective for the most part this season, but this is an example of lazy press defense that allows Indiana to float the ball over the Terps’ first line of defense, giving a numbers advantage to the Hoosiers, who once again set Kopp up for a corner three.
One of the ways Willard said his team can fix its transition defense is by getting back to the fundamentals. There’s nothing more fundamental than stopping the ball in transition defense. It’s what your peewee coach always yelled out because he didn’t know basketball and had nothing else to say.
Willard is screaming “stop the ball” on the sideline, but no one makes a serious effort to do so. Hart reached again, allowing Indiana’s guard to march his way into the lane.
The good news for Maryland is these are fixable mistakes, but they need to be fixed quick because the Mountaineers are a potent threat in transition. One of the reasons West Virginia’s offense is dynamic is because the Mountaineers love to get out and run. Of West Virginia’s offensive possessions, 15.1% are in transition, the second-highest play type behind spot-ups.
They score 1.092 points per possession, which ranks in the 77th percentile and is “very good,” according to Synergy.
These are two clips of Kansas and Kansas State failing to stop the ball and West Virginia making them pay for it.
There’s no better clip that exemplifies how West Virginia is looking to push it in transition than this one. The second Erik Stevenson brings down the rebound, Seth Wilson and Kedrian Johnson start streaking on opposite sidelines. Stevenson delivers a Kevin Love-esque outlet pass to Wilson and the Mountaineers score an easy two.
Maryland also thrives in transition, which could lead to a fast-paced, high scoring affair, but if the Terps don't clean up their transition defense, they won’t keep up with the Mountaineers.
Rebounding and limiting put backs is paramount for Maryland
While West Virginia may not be the physical force it once was that terrorized opponents from 94 feet out, it still is a physical, hard-nosed group that loves to crash the glass. West Virginia emphasizes offensive rebounding — it ranked fourth in the Big 12 in total offensive rebounds.
The Mountaineers score 1.101 points per possession on offensive rebound put backs, which ranks in the 53rd percentile. Here’s how they do it:
Huggins puts an emphasis on sending multiple guys to the glass to create second-chance points. But here’s the catch: West Virginia has a suspect transition defense — similar to Maryland — because it prioritizes offensive rebounding. Maryland’s offense, led by dynamic graduate guard Jahmir Young, is at its best when Young is leading the break in transition. If Maryland can secure defensive boards at a high rate, it will be able to expose West Virginia’s transition defense.
However, that’s a big if. Maryland was a better rebounding team in conference play than many expected for an undersized group. The Terps were in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in rebounding margin. However, they surrendered a plethora of put-backs.
Maryland’s defense gives up 1.189 points per possessions on offensive rebound put-back attempts, which grades as poor, according to Synergy. Here are a few examples:
Huggins and his staff are certainly watching the same film and telling their team to put pressure on Maryland’s bigs to board. Maryland needs to ensure it’s a five-man rebounding effort on Thursday afternoon.
How Maryland can exploit West Virginia’s pick-and-roll coverage
It’s no secret Maryland’s offense is centered around the pick-and-roll, like many offenses around the country. Young is usually the primary ball handler, but Hakim Hart has been used in that role in recent weeks.
Young didn’t have the best two games in the Big Ten Tournament. He combined for 27 points on 6-for-28 shooting from the field. Young said the coverage against him was similar to what he's seen all year, which included hard hedges and blitzes. Willard attributed the struggles to Young playing against bigger defenders.
Regardless, Maryland is going to need its best player to play like it Thursday. West Virginia will watch tape and may adjust its pick-and-roll defense based on what has worked against Young the past few games, but the Mountaineers have shown soft pick-and-roll coverages that Young can exploit.
This is the exact coverage that Young wants to see. There is no hard hedge and no blitz. West Virginia’s defense botches its assignments, allowing Texas Tech’s guard to turn the corner and explode downhill. This is reminiscent of how Young has scored buckets in the pick-and-roll.
West Virginia goes under the screen, allowing Kansas guard Jalen Wilson to knock down a three from the top of the key. Young hasn’t had the best 3-point shooting season, but he shoots 44% from three as a pick-and-roll ball handler compared to just 29.4% as a spot-up shooter. If West Virginia goes under ball screens, Young will make it pay.
Identifying weaknesses and strengths is the key to scouting. It allows teams to develop sound game plans they hope will result in a win. But this is March, after all. And with it comes the madness. So as much as rebounding, transition play and the pick-and-roll will play a factor in the outcome, there’s only one thing for certain: expect the unexpected.