In early February, just days after a crucial home victory over Iowa State, Kansas coach Bill Self walked into Allen Fieldhouse with a specific goal in mind. For as much as coaches talk about staying in the moment, Self was eager to look ahead.
Later that week, Kansas would board a bus and drive south to face Oklahoma State on a Saturday afternoon. Days after that, another road test awaited the Jayhawks at Texas Tech. But on this day back in Lawrence, Self’s mind was already moving forward, to an unusual challenge coming in the middle of February.
In close to 11 days, Self and the Jayhawks would head to West Virginia, and with a rare four-day break between games, Self knew it was time. So as practice began, Self put his starting five on the floor, surrounded them with eight defenders, and let the chaos unfold.
“We spent the entire practice going against eight guys,” Self would say.
Perhaps there are other ways to simulate the intensity, madness and wild unpredictability of West Virginia’s vaunted full-court press. But Self’s version of preparation is pretty simple. You basically invite a convoy of bodies on the court — reserves, walk-ons, even managers — and you crank up the heat to full blast.
Nearly two weeks later, Self will hope the early preparation pays off as No. 8 Kansas arrives in Morgantown, W.Va., on Monday night to face No. 21 West Virginia and its relentless “Press Virginia” style of full-court defense.
Some teams turn up the full-court pressure for stretches. Few teams commit to the scheme like West Virginia has this season. And even fewer programs have used a press as effectively. The Mountaineers average 11.6 steals per game and force turnovers on 29.9 percent of opponents’ possessions, which ranks first in the country, according to KenPom.com. In historical context: No team has forced turnovers at this rate since Alabama A&M (30.7) in 2001-02.
“They get after the ball from the jump,” Kansas freshman forward Cliff Alexander said.
To makes matters more difficult, Kansas enters Monday having just one day to prepare following Saturday’s 74-64 victory over Baylor at Allen Fieldhouse. In the moments after the Baylor victory, Self said the Jayhawks would have a 30-minute practice on Sunday, one final opportunity to brush up on the press. But the schedule is one reason Self used an entire day in early February to prepare for West Virginia.
“If we make any adjustments,” Self said, “it will be tweaks as opposed to changes.”
Kansas will rely heavily on its guards, especially sophomore Frank Mason and freshman Devonte’ Graham, and Self is hopeful that his team is eager to attack the press — and not just survive it.
“We got two really good point guards and we just have to be aggressive and attack,” sophomore guard Wayne Selden said, echoing his coach’s message. “(We) just have to be aggressive (and) try and attack it.”
The Jayhawks, though, will mostly be going in blind. In his first seven seasons at West Virginia, head coach Bob Huggins rarely unleashed the press like he has this season.
In some ways, the transition to a high-pressure style was as much about necessity as it was choice. West Virginia missed the NCAA Tournament again last season — the first time since 1989-91 that Huggins missed the tourney in consecutive seasons. And then the Mountaineers started losing players. Eron Harris, the team’s second-leading scorer, transferred to Michigan State. Terry Henderson left the program and landed at North Carolina State.
Huggins had a deep stable of athletes at his disposal, but the team’s skill level and offensive ceiling were questionable. Huggins needed something to close the gap against the Big 12’s elite teams. For the most part, the gambit has paid major dividends — though West Virginia does enter Monday having lost three times in four games.
For the Mountaineers, this Big Monday contest offers an opportunity for a signature win, something to strengthen their already strong resume. For Kansas, meanwhile, the Jayhawks can notch a road victory that would tighten its stranglehold on the conference race. The game, in other words, will be about pressure. And Self is hopeful his team can handle it.
“I hope our guys go in with the mindset to attack their pressure to score as opposed to just survive,” Self said. “Because if you do that, then they’ll smell blood.”
No. 8 Kansas at No. 21 West Virginia
▪ WHEN: 8 p.m. Monday
▪ TV/RADIO: ESPN; KCSP (610 AM)