The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One eye-popping stat that could slap down the West Virginia Mountaineers in March

West Virginia’s stifling defense has cost them a lot of fouls, but it’s also earned them a number of big wins. (David Purdy/Getty Images)

West Virginia is one of the nation’s most unsettling teams.

The Mountainteers rely on a full-court press, taught to coach Bob Huggins by Kevin Mackey (of Cleveland State-upsets-Indiana fame), who then installed the defense on his team before the 2014-15 season. If an opponent does get the ball across half-court, WVU is just as physical and unnerving. It’s why West Virginia leads the nation in turnover percentage, forcing opposing teams to cough up the ball on a quarter of their possessions, and accounts for the squad’s defensive efficiency rate — 0.90 points per possession, ranked seventh nationally (per Ken Pomeroy’s database).

But an often unmentioned element of this defense is the hacking. West Virginia loves to foul. Playing physical means that arms are going to get slapped, hands will be hit during strips, and opposing players will go to the free throw line. And while Huggins’ teams have always been foul prone, it has reached a different level this season as seen by a defensive free throw rate (which is free throws attempted divided by field goals attempted — essentially, how often a team gets to the stripe) of nearly 58 percent, which is the highest ever for a Huggins-coached team.

Thanks to this stingy defense, and an offense that is just as uncomfortably disjointed and physical, the Mountainteers can crack the Final Four. But history isn’t exactly on WVU’s side.

Since the start of the Ken Pom era (the 2002 season), only one Division I champion has had a defensive free throw rate outside the nation’s top 100 — Louisville, in 2013 (35 percent). Each of the other thirteen champs were largely foul free, moving their feet, beating opponents to spots on the floor, and not falling for the free throw-inducing pump fake.

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Foul heavy squads proved incapable of even making the NCAA tournament’s second week — just seven of 93 teams from 2011 to 2014 had similar profiles to West Virginia (i.e. defensive free throw rates that ranked 150 or higher in KenPom’s database and a top 100 defensive efficiency rate) and reached the Sweet 16. And while some of these teams were “One Shining Moment” mainstays during their respective runs — Butler (2011), Wichita State (2013), Dayton (2014) — the majority were bounced by the end of the opening two days.

Interestingly, two teams fulfilled both criteria in four postseasons — Georgetown and Kansas State, but neither of the two squads were ever able to escape the tournament’s first weekend.

However, there was a shift last year. Referees were mandated to call the game with a bit more stringency. The goal was to foster more halfcourt offensive freedom and spacing with fewer grind-it-out affairs. Five squads — Arizona, Wichita State, Michigan State, WVU and North Carolina — continued to rack up fouls but managed to keep their tourney dreams alive until at least the Sweet 16. Was that an outlier or the start of the new trend? A few contenders, including West Virginia, should hope it’s the latter.

As Pomeroy recently noted, Washington has also been a foul factory this season — the team has had 36 disqualifications, and leads the rest of Division I by a wide margin. The Huskies have always been defensively foul-dependent under Lorenzo Romar, but UW switched course last season (because the team had little-to-no depth) and kept opponents off the free throw line. That led to a 16-15 record.

With a deep freshmen class in 2016 though, and a defense that gambles for steals, has several skilled shotblockers, and is absolutely terrible on the defensive glass (teams grab nearly 64 percent of their missed shots), Romar has given his squad a bit more hacking freedom. UW’s defensive free throw rate now hovers at about 45 percent, and the Huskies are a legitimate NCAA tournament bubble contender.

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Fourteen teams have adopted this strategy in 2016, and all are either potential Cinderellas (UNC Wilmington, UALR, Monmouth and Hawaii) or squads ready to capitalize on significant pre- and in-season hype (Wichita State, VCU, and the aforementioned Mountaineers).

Along with WVU, the Shockers are the most intriguing team. Gregg Marshall has always emphasized a physical brand of basketball — WSU crowds offensive players, restricting freedom and subtly using their lower body to hamper opponents — but the Missouri Valley team has achieved a fouling feat — a 51 percent defensive free throw rate.

The reason for this significant uptick (Marshall’s teams in the Valley have never topped 43 percent) is simple: he has got a ton of bodies. Only eight teams rely more heavily on their bench than the Shockers, and Marshall consistently rotates players onto the court. Ron Baker is the only WSU player to use more than 60 percent of the team’s minutes, and this lineup flexibility allows Marshall’s team to defend with his preferred level of intensity while still ensuring he has enough MVC-tested players to plug holes.

This year will be an interesting test for the theory of whether hacking teams can win in March. Before 2015, that question appeared settled, but as teams continue to adapt to how games are officiated, and players increasingly become more comfortable with playing with two fouls in the first half (or teams have the luxury of deep benches), there could future attention paid by coaches on the correlation between success, defensive efficiency and free throw rate.