Banking On Defense

It's hardly a new wrinkle in what West Virginia does, but watching the Mountaineers play, it's still a bit staggering to see a 6-foot-9 forward take on the task of defending every team's best perimeter player. It's a challenge Devin Ebanks has embraced, and something he said will define his role both in college and at the professional level.

The sophomore's most recent victim was Morgan State guard Reggie Holmes. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's Player of the Year, who averaged just shy of 22 points per game heading into Friday's NCAA Tournament game, had a miserable outing in his team's 77-50 loss to the Mountaineers.

After making a 3-pointer to start the scoring, Holmes proceeded to miss his next nine shots from the field with Ebanks guarding him. In the final three minutes (long after Ebanks had checked out of a blowout), Holmes scored seven of his 12 points.

The WVU forward's defensive effort on Holmes was the result of some careful study of the Morgan State guard's game.

"Watching tape of him the last three days, I really tried to study his moves to the basket," said Ebanks. "[He likes to take] two dribbles in and step back to create an open shot."

"I tried to eliminate his touches. When got the ball, I just stayed in his face [and tried] not to let him get get a clean shot off."

As he so often does on defense, Ebanks used his long reach and height to great effect. When Holmes did get shots, they were almost always contested in a way that made him shoot a high-arcing attempt to get the ball over the West Virginia forward's hands.

But Holmes was just the latest in a line of talented guards Ebanks has matched up against -- and limited.

As Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins pointed out to a national media member who seemed surprised to see Ebanks matched up against Holmes, the sophomore forward has been taking on anyone and everyone all season.

"He's played everybody," said Huggins. "We put him on [Villanova guard] Scottie Reynolds, for instance. We've put him on a lot of small guys."

The perception is that such guards should be able to use their speed to get around big men like Ebanks. But time and time again, the Long Island City, N.Y., native has denied dribble penetration even to some of the nation's best players.

That forces opponents into the less-than-ideal situation of trying to shoot over him.

"Dev has good feet," said Huggins. "He's got good feet but he has such great length. And the thing he was talking about, Reggie's step-back move is a lot better when you have somebody who is not 6-9 and as long as Dev is. He's done a really good job on smaller guys for us."

The role of defensive stopper is one Ebanks has embraced, and one he said would be his identity for remainder of his time as a collegian -- and whenever he moves on to the professional ranks.

"I enjoy it a lot, shutting down other teams' best player," said the sophomore. "Knowing they're great scorers, I don't want to get embarrassed on national TV. I play as hard on defense as I can and limit their touches."

"They're doing a great job on the coaching side of it. They know I like to get in people, get in their face and alter shots. It's been working all year. I accept the challenge and I don't shy away from it at all. Coach has confidence in me to guard them, and so do I in myself."

That showed on Friday at Buffalo's HSBC Arena, when Ebanks played what he called his "best game" -- even in spite of the bruised ribs he continues to play with after absorbing an elbow to the body in last week's Big East Tournament championship game win over Georgetown.

"They hurt a little bit, but we'll just keep treating them," said Ebanks. "Now is not the time to be hurt."

"I try to block it out during the game. We're working towards a championship, and I want to be out there. So I block it out."

Time and time again, the forward referred to that ultimate goal in the locker room after Friday's first round win. He said everything he has done since last year's loss to Dayton in the NCAA Tournament has been done to make for a better ending to this season.

And if that means worrying about his own shot less and setting up teammates more, if it means guarding post players or continuing to take on opposing guards, Ebanks said he's all for it -- as long as the ultimate result is victory.

"I thought about it all summer when I was working out -- this is what we are playing for: a championship," said Ebanks. "So I really thought it before the game and tried to play as hard as I could -- tried to get to every rebound and loose ball, tried to block shots -- just do everything in my power to win."

"I know that's what's going to win us games -- and I like winning. I don't like taking Ls, and whatever it takes to win, I'm willing to do it."

"We've got five more games to go, hopefully. We're going to keep the winning streak going."

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