INDIANAPOLIS — The last time West Virginia University played Syracuse was nine years ago in 2012.
Not much has changed.
The Mountaineers still can’t defeat the Orange. WVU still struggles to cope with Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense, dubbed the “Amoeba” by iconic coach Jim Boeheim. And Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins still can’t beat his old coaching buddy, Boeheim, losing for the sixth consecutive time.
That’s what we learned from WVU’s disappointing 75-72 loss to Syracuse here Sunday night during the second round of the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It’s also what we feared.
Everybody knows the fears. The Mountaineers had lost two of their last three games and struggled more than expected in a first-round NCAA win over Morehead State. Junior center Derek Culver was in an obvious funk that spilled over into the postseason. That’s why backup Gabe Osabuohien played 19 of the 40 minutes against Syracuse.
Then, of course, there was the lack of defense that has been a season-long problem. And, don’t forget, the Mountaineers were facing that confounding “Amoeba” defense.
All those fears came to fruition here Sunday against Syracuse.
“Quite frankly,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins on a postgame Zoom call, “we couldn’t score inside. They gang-guarded us. They made us play inside-out.
“I think we ran what we needed to run. We just couldn’t score it. We ought to make one, but we didn’t make any. It seemed like everything they put up went in.”
That’s what the 2-3 zone defense does to offenses.
Just ask WVU sharpshooter Sean McNeil, who led the Mountaineers with 23 points on the strength of seven 3-pointers.
“Syracuse’s zone probably bothered us more than we expected in the first half,” said McNeil. “We kind of came out flat today. We didn’t look like we had any energy.
“I think their zone kind of shocked us a little bit. Their length bothered us. There are certain things you can’t simulate. Their length bothered us so much.”
That was particularly the case in the first half. WVU trailed for 19:10 of the 20-minute first half and never led. Culver was non-existent, shooting 1 for 7 from the floor with only three rebounds. And, as a team, the Mountaineers missed 19 shots and committed 11 turnovers.
The big surprise?
Instead of hanging their heads, the Mountaineers came out and fought back after halftime. Why, the Mountaineers even took a 53-52 lead with 9:47 remaining. The problem is the lead lasted for only 56 seconds.
After that, Boeheim’s son, Buddy, took over. But, as Huggins pointed out, the younger Boeheim got a little help from his friends in blue and gold uniforms.
“Buddy shot the ball extremely well,” said Huggins. “I think he had a stretch he made three straight [3-pointers]. We played catch up the rest of the game.
“We wanted length on Buddy [who is 6-foot-6], but we kept switching out of it. I don’t know why, but we switched three times.”
Add that to the list of fears.
These Mountaineers had a somewhat strange habit of not doing what Huggins asked them to do. As odd and as strange as that sounds, it is true.
WVU didn’t play defense all season. At times, the Mountaineers didn’t rebound. Often the players were their own worst enemy. And, yes, they didn’t always listen to Huggins.
Yet, WVU still was a very good team.
The Mountaineers could have been so much better.