Written by Mark Fought of BlueGoldSports.com
“The author wishes to submit this article in honor of his late son, a sports journalism major at Radford University, who died on 2 March 2007 at age 19 due to medical mistakes made while he was hospitalized.”
The long grind of a college sports season can take its toll on a participant’s body. Injuries are an ever-present possibility, and even the minor ones cause pain and discomfort and can adversely affect a player’s performance. Often the “little” injuries must be compensated for, taking a player out of his typical range of motion and causing undue stresses on the body as the player attempts to “play through it”. The long hours getting treatments for injuries and responding to those treatments never show up in a box score or a contest’s final statistics. Those hours aren’t seen by the casual fan or program observer, yet they are as much a part of being a Division 1 college athlete as scoring points, playing defense and the other more visible parts of the games or matches.
Even if a player manages to get through a season without an injury, which is rare as minor ones beset almost every player, fatigue can enter the picture as a season winds its way to a close. Some would say that 18- to 23-year olds should be in the prime athletic shape of their lives and should be practically immune to simply wearing down, but that is not reality. Ask any Division 1 athlete, or most any other college athlete that has completed an entire season without a significant injury and has participated in most or every contest throughout the course of a season, if they have that kind of immunity and they’ll probably laugh outloud or look at the questioner with a, “Are you serious?” kind of look.
Part of any collegiate (and professional) strength and conditioning coach’s/staff’s responsibility is preparing a player for the entirety of a season. While attempting to improve strength and agility, the S&C coaches also aim to prepare a player to withstand the rigors of an entire season and to be in a position to perform at a peak level when post-season play begins.
When a program implements and utilizes an aggressive style of play, even more energy is taken out of the body over the course of a season, and even more care than usual must be provided by the program’s strength and conditioning staff to ensure that each player’s body is up to the challenge.
West Virginia University’s men’s basketball team has utilized a full-court, pressure style of defense throughout the 2014-15 season. It is a physical style of play that demands much of a player and truly tests his conditioning. The concern in utilizing this style of play is whether the Mountaineers will wear down as the season comes to a close; whether the Mountaineers will have enough gas left in the tank to play at the highest level during the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship and during March Madness.
Two of the unsung heroes of the 2014-15 WVU basketball season are the program’s Associate Director of Strength and Conditioning, Andy Kettler, and Coordinator of Athletic Training Services, Randy Meador. Those two WVU men’s basketball staff members and those that work with them have played key roles in preparing and sustaining WVU’s men’s basketball players to deploy the exhausting style the Mountaineers regularly employ, one that several television commentators have called the most suffocating full-court pressure defense in all of Division 1.
Another hero in allowing WVU to effectively utilize the aggressive style the Mountaineers have unleashed on their opponents in 2014-15 is veteran head coach Bob Huggins and his staff. It is a given that one statistic that is closely monitored by the WVU coaching staff, particularly given the style of play WVU is using in 2014-15, is minutes played per game and, in a corollary sense, players used per game.
With Coach Huggins using multiple players per game the Mountaineers often get players needed rest at critical junctures in games – points in games where otherwise a player would have to continue to press onward and by doing so would take a toll over the course of a season. Let’s look at some of the statistics to see if they back up the claim that Coach Huggins is using his entire roster for maximum benefit.
Through the Baylor game this past Saturday WVU has used an average of 12.21 players per game. WVU’s opponents have used just 10.59 players per game. On only two occasions in 2014-15 – Lafayette (15 versus WVU’s 12) and Northern Kentucky (15 versus WVU’s 14) has a WVU opponent used more players in a game than the Mountaineers. In Big 12 play the difference in players used becomes even more pronounced. In conference games, WVU has used 12.1 players per game versus its conference opponents’ 10.31 players per game. Take out the players used just one minute each in mop-up duty by Oklahoma, Baylor and Iowa State and the average drops to 9.63 players per game in conference play. 12.1 vs. 9.63 – that’s an average of almost 2.5 more players per game used by WVU than its conference foes. In Big 12 play, on only three out of sixteen occasions thus far – at Texas Tech, at home versus Oklahoma and at Iowa State – did WVU and a Big 12 opponent use the same number of players in a game.
Looking at WVU players’ minutes per game (through the 2/28/15 Baylor contest) only one Mountaineer – Juwan Staten – is averaging over 30 minutes a game in games played with “Wanny” at 31.0. In 2013-14, Staten logged 37.3 minutes per game and appeared to be breaking down, physically, at the end of last season. Clearly, the nearly 6 minutes per game difference between this and last season should result in a fresher Juwan Staten as WVU enters conference tournament and NCAA tournament play (pending a recovery from some nagging injuries that caused him to miss the Baylor game).
Next closest to the veteran Mountaineer point guard in minutes per game played is Devin Williams at 24.3 minutes per games played, followed Jevon Carter at 23.4 minutes per games played and Jonathan Holton at 20.7 minutes per game played. Those four are the only Mountaineers averaging playing half of a full 40-minute game or more.
With the strategic use of the roster WVU has avoided the injury bug (with Saturday’s injury to senior guard Gary Browne the most glaring exception as Mountaineer fans wait to see the full extent of that injury). There have been some bouts with illnesses and some injuries to non-starters, but by and large injuries have not significantly affected WVU. That has further allowed maximum utilization of the available warm bodies wearing Mountaineer uniforms.
Given the above analysis it is this writer’s opinion that WVU, despite playing an aggressive and physically demanding style of basketball that demands great exertion, will not suffer any detrimental effects from using that style as the season nears the finish line. The combination of an excellent approach to conditioning employed by the coaching staff – planning that began in the summer of 2014 when the commitment to using the press was made – and the utilization of multiple players throughout the games as the season has progressed, along with generally favorable (to date) results in avoiding injuries – which otherwise might have forced players into more playing time than desired by Bob Huggins and his staff – WVU’s players appear to be in good physical condition to tackle post-season play.
It is every Mountaineer’s hope that Gary Browne’s injury is not severe (such as the dreaded high ankle sprain) and that every member of the 2014-15 WVU men’s basketball team can enjoy the fruits of their season’s labors with a deep NCAA tournament run. Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen, but the WVU strength and conditioning staff and Coach Huggins should be congratulated for putting together an excellent plan to put WVU in a good position, physically, to make such a run. The players should be congratulated also, for buying into the system and making it a cornerstone of WVU’s success on the hardwood in 2014-15.