MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- There was never a doubt that the West Virginia men's basketball program would be built on stingy, physical defense under first-year coach Bob Huggins. The only question was, just how long that transition would take.
Here's a little secret -- the Mountaineers' transition has been far smoother and happened much quicker than imagined. It is clear they are developing into a dominant defensive team.
What's even more impressive is they are doing it a number of different ways ... with man, zone and sometimes even junk defenses, such as the triangle-and-two they used to upset Marquette last week.
Yesterday, the Mountaineers went old school and relied on a relentless man-to-man in order to produce an 81-61 victory against Syracuse before 13,560 at the WVU Coliseum.
The victory snapped West Virginia's eight-game losing streak to the Orange (12-5, 2-2).
The 61 points scored by the Orange was the team's lowest total of the season and Syracuse managed only 20 points in the first half. It was an impressive display of defense, especially considering the Orange entered the game averaging 84.7 points per game and had been held to less than 70 only twice before during this season.
"I thought our defensive intensity was better overall," Huggins said. "We thought we could come out and play man and we played man the whole game and pushed them out of what they wanted to run. My big concern was being able to rebound if we went man because they are so big and to that end we did a good job as well."
Junior forward Joe Alexander said the Mountaineers (12-4, 2-2 Big East) are starting to feel confident and rely on their defense. But he believes if they are going to become a more dangerous team they will need to find some consistency on offense.
"I think we only gave up like  points in that loss at Louisville but we only scored 54," Alexander said. "We just didn't play well on offense, we missed some shots, but today we worked the ball around well, hit the open man and we all hit our open shots."
While the defense did its job, the Mountaineers' offense was led by the hot hand of guard Alex Ruoff, who made 7 of 11 3-point attempts and finished with a game-high 23 points. He and point guard Darris Nichols proved to be too much for Syracuse's tandem of freshman guards Jonny Flynn and Scoop Jardine to handle.
Ruoff said Nichols, who finished with 17 points and six assists, made his job easy by penetrating into Syracuse's zone and distributing the ball.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim gave a lot of credit to West Virginia's defensive pressure but said his team, for the second consecutive game, lacked confidence and showed its inexperience. The Orange start three freshmen and a sophomore.
"Offensively, we have not executed in the first half of the past two games," Boeheim said. "I think what happens is when things don't go well, the young guys start to lose confidence on both ends of the court and we aren't doing a good job of handling the ball and getting people open."
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NOTE -- West Virginia's back-up quarterback Jarrett Brown will join the Mountaineers' basketball team when it resumes practice tomorrow. Brown, who is a 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore from West Palm Beach, Fla., was a stellar guard in high school and had some offers to play Division I basketball.
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720.