January 29, 2021 

Inside West Virginia’s ascent to the top 25

Kysre Gondrezick is the truth, and depth is key

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Jasmine Carson runs the fast break in a win over Texas Tech. (Photo via Michaela Schumacher.)

For three months, it looked like Baylor, Iowa State and Texas had established a class of their own atop the Big 12. But quietly, as the Cyclones and Longhorns started dropping games, West Virginia kept winning.

On Monday, the Mountaineers launched into the AP Top 25 for the first time this season, riding a six-game winning streak (that has now extended to seven games) dating back to Dec. 21. After Wednesday’s 73-53 win over Texas Tech, the Mountaineers don’t look like they’re dropping outside the rankings any time soon.

To get into the crux of their seven-game stretch, we have to rewind to the team’s Jan. 20 victory over Kansas State — certainly the most bizarre win of the streak, coming against arguably their least impressive opponent.

Kansas State was a sub-.500 team that hadn’t played basketball in a month, but you’d never know from its game against West Virginia. For 37 minutes, the Wildcats found ways to make the Mountaineers uncomfortable, dramatically slowing the pace down and limiting any interior scoring that West Virginia could hope to muster. The strategy paid off for a while — with 3:27 left in the contest, Kansas State had a 12-point lead and a 99.8 percent chance of winning, according to ESPN’s win probability metric. 25 seconds later, head coach Mike Carey called timeout and switched to a full-court press.

You can figure out what happened next in the graph below.

Blindsiding Kansas State, West Virginia forced a turnover on nearly every in-bound pass in its full-court press, scoring 21 unanswered points to finish with a 65-56 win. Four days later, the Mountaineers were ranked.

“Overall, I thought our press was really, really good,” Carey said. “That’s what we had to do. If we didn’t do that, we were going to (lose) by double figures. We couldn’t let them just come down and start holding the ball because we weren’t scoring on the other end.”

Believe it or not, this is the same West Virginia team that lost its first two in-conference games this season. As of this week, Carey’s squad sits at #24 in the AP poll as one of just two ranked Big 12 teams (Baylor is the other, currently ranked ninth). So how did West Virginia get here? To find out, we have to look at the main cogs of the Mountaineer machine.

Stylistic Changes

Carey’s offenses have never been known for uber-efficient basketball, but last season certainly marked a low point in Morgantown. Not only did the team struggle to generate consistent offense throughout conference play, but it wasn’t terribly efficient when it did score. The team’s primary options, Kysre Gondrezick and the now-graduated Tynice Martin, both shot under 38 percent from the field. Guard Madisen Smith, and forwards Esmery Martinez and Kari Niblack — who have all emerged as starters this season — shot under 60 percent from the charity stripe.

But throughout the offseason, the Mountaineers put in the extra hours to improve their conditioning and shooting. During the winning streak, those hours have paid off. The offense, which revolves around the same 19-20 core (minus-Martin), has done a 180.

After last year’s janky offensive production, Carey’s offense has leaned into the most efficient style of basketball you’ll find outside of Waco. While the team is attempting 3-pointers at a mid-2000s rate, it’s keeping defenses honest enough at 37.5 percent. The Mountaineers create these perimeter opportunities with the frontcourt, setting tough screens at the arc for the guards to run around off-the-ball. That’s created enough space for the team to see its efficiency climb and complicates the offense for opposing defenses.

On the left, West Virginia’s shooting percentages from separate areas of the court. On the right, the frequency with which they take each shot. Shot chart via CBB Analytics.

If nothing else, the Mountaineers take high percentage shots and clean up well enough on the glass to ensure their opponents don’t get extra opportunities.

West Virginia, for lack of a better term, is playing Baylor-lite basketball. Stylistically, Mountaineer games rely more on guard play, but West Virginia is doing the right things to win games. They love to move the ball, they love to crash the boards, they love to get out in transition, and most of all — they love to win.

An emerging frontcourt

It’s hard to win in the Big 12 without a dangerous frontcourt, and this season, West Virginia’s two-post pairing has made the necessary leap.

While junior forward Kari Niblack started the year slowly, she’s re-emerged as the anchor of the team’s interior attack, leading the team in scoring with 23 points during its comeback against Kansas State. In her last six games of the streak, she is averaging 12.3 points per game on 58 percent shooting.

She’s doing so much damage in the paint when they go high-low— even at her modest 6’1 frame, she’s a smart player who lurks in the right spot for the ball, and at the other end, she’s collecting 1.8 blocks per game.

Sophomore forward Esmery Martinez — the other half of the frontcourt — is a phenom, and unlike Niblack, her production had no precedent. While she played only sparingly as a freshman, Martinez but has become a juggernaut in Carey’s rotation. The sophomore big is one of the best (if not the best) rebounders in the country, pulling down 12.5 rebounds per game. That’s not luck — Martinez is so skilled at using every inch of her 6’2 frame to get to the ball, and commits to every missed shot as if a title is on the line. Nobody works harder for their rebounds.

Her explanation, when asked what makes a good rebounder, was a lot more simple.

“I don’t really know,” Martinez said with a smile. “I feel like I know where the ball is going, and I go for them.”

But Martinez is more than an interior defender and tenacious glass-crasher — she’s a ballhawk off-ball and a smart team defender, and her rise has sparked this winning streak. She’s had double-figure scoring in her past nine games and is becoming more and more comfortable putting the ball on the floor as the days pass.

Niblack and Martinez often find such a solid position in the post and serve as ancillary figures for the backcourt. Because the team has so many great playmakers — all three backcourt starters are averaging at least three assists per game — the Mountaineers can feed the ball inside with ease.

Her midrange shot is improving, too. If that starts to click, watch out.

The backcourt: able to beat you from anywhere

The biggest boon for Carey’s roster is its five-part attack. The Mountaineers can beat you with anyone on the court, and they’re only getting better — all five starters are averaging at least 10 points per game during the winning streak. The three who roam in the backcourt — Madisen Smith, Kirsten Deans, and Kysre Gondrezick — are more than comfortable getting to their spots creating their own shot.

Smith, for one, has a very smooth offensive game. There’s little she doesn’t have in her arsenal, though she can tend to struggle at the rim. At 5’5, that makes sense, and with four other interior scorers, it doesn’t hold the team back any. The junior guard is shifty and confident in her movement, at times appearing to float on the hardwood, and her mastery over her handle and body control allows her to control the pace of the team. If you’re looking for a player who accelerates or decelerates on a dime, watch Smith go to work.

Alongside Smith is Deans. The pair is averaging 22.7 points, 7.3 assists, and 5.8 rebounds per game. While Deans missed the last two games with a non-COVID illness, Carey hopes that she’ll return Saturday against TCU. Both Smith and Deans add a ton of value on the offensive end, and Deans is the predominant pest on the other side of the ball. Night-in and night-out, she’s tasked with stopping the best perimeter player on the other team. 

“She’s the energy,” Carey said of Deans. “She plays with a lot of heart and she’s tough too. She’ll run through a wall. She gives us that meanness and plays extremely hard.”

West Virginia is gritty, and part of this high efficiency comes with the two most uncontested play types in basketball — getting out in transition and getting to the free-throw line. That’s where its backcourt thrives. In short, West Virginia almost always reaps what it sows.

At the center of it all is senior guard Kysre Gondrezick. Last year, she was great. This year, Gondrezick is a phenom. In the offseason, she committed to improving her conditioning. That’s led to a heavy load on both ends of the court, as she’s averaging 20.8 points per game and 1.8 steals on the other end.

After her efficiency dipped in 2019-20, she’s become more consistent this year, shooting over 40 percent from the field in the last six games. There’s no shot she can’t find for herself on the floor. Gondrezick has a Flex-Seal-tight handle, and like Smith, possesses fantastic body control. There are few faster or better than Gondrezick around a corner or on a break. She has a mix of talent and tenacity that is hard to teach.

For as great as Gondrezick is, the biggest relief for the Mountaineers is that they don’t need her to be electric every night in the same way Texas needs it from Charli Collier or Iowa State needs from Ashley Joens. Both those teams have impressive supporting casts but struggle at times without their stars.

West Virginia relies more on its starting rotation than almost any other team in the conference, and a win over Kansas State without Deans is encouraging. Unfortunately for its depth, Jayla Hemingway got injured fighting for the ball, and it’s unclear when she’ll be back. Can score inside and out.

It hasn’t been all Kansas State-level opponents throughout this stretch. The Mountaineers routed a Texas team, who was ranked #17 at the time ,by 32 points and stole another game from Oklahoma State, a team that has surprised many — and they did so despite the absence of Gondrezick.

The Mountaineers’ versatility makes them nearly matchup-proof. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t cracks in the system.

Room to improve

The Mountaineers are not immortal, as the first 37 minutes of the Kansas State contest showcased. They’re the fourth Big 12 team to reach the top 25, but only Baylor has stayed inside it. What still needs work?

First of all, the bench is shallow. The Mountaineers are always able to have at least two shot-creators on the court, but if the bench can’t play their role on both ends, trouble will emerge. West Virginia has survived without Deans, but can they thrive if another starter went down? Jayla Hemmingway, one of the bench players’ to show promise, is now out for six weeks with a knee injury. The bench rotation’s conditioning will certainly take time to come around. That said, if the Mountaineers are poised to make a run late in the season, the in-game reps they’re earning now are a net-positive.

Also, as in the Kansas State game, they’re vulnerable when the game slows down. West Virginia can be guilty of these lulls on the court if a couple of shots don’t go their way. They turn the ball over way too often, and foul too often save for the Kansas State game. That could be trouble in March.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream and Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

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