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Commentary: Mountaineers defying conventional sports wisdom

It's always fun to see athletes and teams defy conventional sports wisdom and win the "wrong" way.

"You can't win in football if you commit penalties." Yet the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens committed the second-most penalties in the NFL last season.

"Baseball is 90 percent pitching." Except that only one of the past five World Series champions finished among the top five in the majors in ERA.

"You can't play golf if you can't hit fairways." But somehow Rory McIlroy rose to No. 1 in the world despite ranking 156th in driving accuracy last season.

Locally, Mount St. Mary's is defying conventional basketball wisdom, which clearly states that you must play good defense and rebound to win at the college level.

Look around the country and you'll see team after team clutching, grabbing, pushing and doing everything within (and without) the rules to keep the opposition from putting ball in basket. While it is hardly aesthetically pleasing, they're doing a good job. Scoring and shooting percentages are down across the NCAA.

In fact, only one team in all of Division I allows its opponents to make half of its shots from the field.

That team is Mount St. Mary's, which finished the regular season on a seven-game winning streak.

In an era when 56 teams hold opponents under 40 percent shooting, the Mountaineers allow other teams to shoot 51.6 percent from the field.

They are playing better defense of late and that percentage has dropped by about six points over the last two months, but they're still 345th in Division I according to the NCAA.

That's 345th out of 345.

The Mountaineers didn't hold any team below 50 percent in a game until the 11th game of the season. Afterward, coach Jamion Christian conceded that "probably won't happen much this year."

It's not as if the Mountaineers make up for it with their rebounding. They grab only 28.1 per game and are outrebounded by seven boards per game on average.

They rank 341st in rebounds and 339th in rebounding margin in Division I. Again, there are only 345 D-I schools. Christian recently answered a reporter's question about rebounding by saying, "We don't talk much about rebounding here."

He was smiling when he said that and, undoubtedly, he would like it if his team was better at defending and rebounding.

But the always-positive Christian focuses more on what his players do well and concentrates on playing to their strengths. Because his four best players are guards, he goes with a four-guard lineup most of the time.

He knows his team can't stop other teams from going inside in the half-court offense or bang with bigger bodies for rebounds. So he has his team pressing and running, forcing turnovers and hoisting lots of 3-pointers, hoping to get more shots than the opposition and to trade three points for two.

The result? The Mount leads the NEC in turnover margin and 3-point attempts.

They simply try to outscore their opponents and they're averaging more than 80 points per game over their past 10 contests, nine of them wins.

The players have bought into this style and they've talked openly about how much they enjoy it. Let's see, run around, get steals, shoot early in the shot clock, mostly 3-pointers ... what's not to like if you're a point guard, shooting guard or small forward? Sounds like an easy sell to high school seniors.

The team bears little resemblance to those during the two (largely unsuccessful) Robert Burke years or the seven (mostly successful) Milan Brown years.

Brown's teams focused on defense and were always near the top of the NEC in terms of fewest points allowed and field goal percentage defense. But his league champion squad, the 2008 team that won the first D-I NCAA tournament game in program history, reached that level only after he tired of trying to outslug teams in low-scoring games and loosened the reins on point guard Jeremy Goode, embracing the joy of scoring.

It won't be easy for this year's team to get to the NCAAs like that team.

Even with the recent hot streak, the Mountaineers are seeded only fifth in the eight-team NEC tournament, meaning they've likely played their final home game of the season.

And everyone knows that, according to conventional sports wisdom, "it's tough to win on the road."

Of course, if a team can overcome being the worst defensive team, and one of the worst rebounding teams, in the country to go on a seven-game winning streak, buying into conventional wisdom might not be so wise.

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