The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

College Sports

April 1, 2010

Ebanks key to WVU’s defense

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia’s Devin Ebanks is all about real estate. He feels he owns the paint on the defensive end of the court.

The 6-foot-9 sophomore prides himself in forcing his opponent’s top scorer to have an off night. He holds a grudge when he occasionally slips up.

Defense defines West Virginia. And the long arms of Ebanks have helped West Virginia play its best defense during a 10-game winning streak that has the Mountaineers in the Final Four.

“We don’t like being scored on,” Ebanks said. “We try to limit everybody’s scoring and limit their touches. It’s fun knowing that you can shut the other person down and outrebound the other team, just outman them, out-tough them. It’s a fun way to play.”

He didn’t feel that way two years ago. Ebanks didn’t care much for defense until he was recruited by coach Bob Huggins.

“He’s not going to tell me what I want to hear,” Ebanks said. “He’s going to tell me what I need to hear, just got me in the right direction as a player. Trust is a big factor, and I trust him a lot.”

Inconsistent scoring forced Ebanks and his teammates to turn up the defensive intensity this season. The Mountaineers have shot below 50 percent from the field in 26 straight games.

They’ve also held six of their last seven opponents under 60 points, with the exception being Kentucky in the East Regional final. West Virginia (31-6) will need a similar effort Saturday night against Duke (33-5) in Indianapolis.

“We’re not going to score a whole lot of points and our guys want to win, so I think they understand we’ve got to do a great job of guarding,” Huggins said. “Our length has something to do with it. And I think in the last month, we got a lot better.”

Especially Ebanks, who struggled in the early part of the season but turned things around on both ends of the floor. He has six double-doubles this season and is third on the team in scoring at 12 points per game and averages 8 rebounds. He’s committed the fewest fouls among West Virginia’s starters, but his 74 turnovers leads the team.

He was responsible for Villanova all-American Scottie Reynolds shooting 5 of 16 from the floor in the regular-season finale.

In the first round of the NCAA tournament, Ebanks had 16 points, 13 rebounds and held Morgan State’s Reggie Holmes to 4 of 17 shooting and 12 points, 10 under his average.

“I accept the challenge and I like shutting them down,” Ebanks said.

Huggins’ bread-and-butter has always been tough man-to-man defense but he’s mixed it up in the NCAA tournament, using a 1-3-1 more often. Against Kentucky, the zone clogged the middle and forced the Wildcats’ guards to shoot 3-pointers. The Wildcats missed their first 20 3-point attempts.

In Duke, the Mountaineers are facing the second straight No. 1 seed, and the Blue Devils’ perimeter scoring might be the toughest challenge to date.

“Duke is kind of similar to us,” Ebanks said. “They’re a good defensive team and a good rebounding team. It will be like the same teams going against each other. I guess it will be who will out-tough who in that game.”

Huggins demands that it be a team effort.

Da’Sean Butler, West Virginia’s leading scorer, is tied with Ebanks for the team lead in steals. Kevin Jones, Wellington Smith and backup John Flowers, all at 6-7, are adept at shot blocking and hold their own on the defensive end.

Ebanks, named to the all-Big East rookie team as a freshman, had to earn his reputation as a stopper.

He missed three straight games in November for undisclosed personal reasons and sat out another in December after hitting his left hand on a rim at a tournament in Anaheim, Calif.

“He had a hard time holding onto the ball,” Huggins said. “He did not shoot the ball really well. The thing about most of our guys is they do a lot of things and Devin became I think an outstanding defender.”

By late December, his hand had healed and things started to click on both ends of the court.

He averaged 18 points and 15 rebounds in wins over Mississippi and Seton Hall and was named Big East player of the week. In the following game he had a team-high 19 points in a 63-62 win over Marquette that capped the team’s 11-0 start.

“I started feeling more comfortable, especially on the offensive end,” Ebanks said. “I had a couple of good scoring games and my defense stayed where it’s at. I just started putting it all together.”

The team’s defensive consistency didn’t take off until Huggins challenged his players after a 73-62 loss at Connecticut on Feb. 22. The Mountaineers haven’t lost since.

One of the first questions Huggins asked Ebanks as a recruit was if he wanted to win a national championship. Ebanks didn’t hesitate to tell the coach what he wanted to hear. And with two more solid games, that wish will come true.

“Now that we have a chance to do it, it’s a great feeling,” Ebanks said.

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