Though statistically not as nasty, “Press Virginia” still has bite

Kansas guard Devon Dotson (11) is careful not to step out of bounds after contact from New Mexico State forward Johnny McCants (35) with seconds remaining in the game on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018 at Sprint Center.

Kansas freshman Devon Dotson has seen so many different looks this week during KU’s preparation for the West Virginia’s vaunted full-court pressure that it temporarily threw off his ability to count correctly.

“We’ve been doing different drills,” said Dotson, who will face the Mountaineers for the first time at 1 p.m. Saturday in Morgantown, W.Va. “I think we did 9-on-5, 8-on-5, 6-on-5, just different ways of getting it in and finding the spots.”

While Dotson was correct in recalling the KU offense’s trial runs against a scout team defense with six and, yes, even eight, defenders on the floor at once, KU coach Bill Self later revealed that the Jayhawks did not go all the way to nine.

“I don’t think we’ve ever gone nine,” Self said. “Just eight.”

When told that Dotson shared a memory of a 9-on-5 drill, Self smiled and then ribbed his freshman point guard.

“Maybe there was nine out there,” Self said. “Or maybe he didn’t learn at an early age to count that high. I thought it was only eight. But he may have felt like there were nine or 10 out there.”

The whole concept of flooding the floor with extra defenders dates back to Self’s first season at Kansas, back in the 2004 NCAA Tournament, when the Jayhawks were preparing for a Sweet 16 game against No. 9 seed UAB and the Blazers’ backbreaking full-court press that eliminated top-seed Kentucky.

Rather than playing 5-on-5 during the days leading up to the game with UAB, Self put eight defenders on the court in an attempt to better simulate UAB coach Mike Anderson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” pressure defense.

By the time the game rolled around, the Jayhawks were so tired of seeing eight defensive players on the floor and so relieved to see just five, that they carved up the UAB press and rolled into the Elite Eight with a 100-74 victory.

Self said the strategy often utilizes help from the team managers so everyone in the rotation can take a turn at trying to break the press.

With Anderson and his pressure defense later landing at Missouri for a handful of years, this type of preparation became somewhat routine, back when the Jayhawks and Tigers were still in the same conference.

“Every time we played against Missouri or played against Mike, we played against eight (in practice),” Self said. “And it always looked like crap. But it’s a lot easier playing against five after you’ve been playing against eight; or at least it should be, in theory.”

Asked where he picked up the practice trick, Self was unsure of its origin.

“It’s just something we decided to do,” he said. “You can’t simulate how good their (West Virginia) press is playing against five, so, obviously, you put more (defense) out there to offset maybe not having a (Jevon) Carter or (Daxter) Miles in the backcourt (pressuring your offense).”

While the Mountaineers (8-9 overall, 0-5 Big 12) still try to play the same style, Bob Huggins’ press has not been nearly as effective this season and Self said that was largely due to the change in personnel.

“Look who they lost,” Self said, noting that WVU has played most of the current season without its best shot blocker in injured center Sagaba Konate and also without Carter and Miles who Self called “probably the two best on-ball pressure defenders on the same team in the country.”

The Mountaineers inability to impact games with their press in the same manner as they’re accustomed also shows up on the stat sheet.

Entering this week, WVU ranked as one of the least effective teams in the nation on both sides of the turnover equation. West Virginia has forced its opponents into a turnover on just 17.5 percent of their possessions (259th in the country) while also turning it over themselves 21.7 percent of the time (306th).

Beyond that, the Mountaineers have recorded a steal on just 7.2 percent of possessions, which ranks them 297th nationally, while having the ball stolen from them 11.6 percent of the time, which ranks 339th among 353 Division I programs.

“It’s not the same personnel pressing,” Self added. “But they are still doing different things, picking up full (court) almost every possession. But it’s not as much of an attack-type pressure as what it was in the past years, pressure that has given us problems over times, especially at their place.”

Despite the statistics, KU’s past struggles at WVU Coliseum or even Dotson’s trouble keeping track of how many defenders Self threw at him in practice, Saturday’s game will feature just 10 players on the floor at all times and Dotson believes the work the Jayhawks put in this week on preparing for the press will have No. 7 Kansas (15-2, 4-1) ready.

“Ball pressure, trapping everywhere, constantly just hounding the ball handler,” said Dotson when asked what stood out about the WVU pressure. “I watched both of the games last year and I’ve seen their intense defense, full-court pressure. We should be ready for it and we’ve been preparing all week for it.

“You just have to be composed and really look at your options,” Dotson added. “It’s difficult, but you’ve got to get through it. Just stay composed. You can’t get rattled.”

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