Preview: St. John's

With three straight Big East road games after the home opener, tonight's contest against St. John's is much-needed for the win column.


First-year head coach Steve Lavin is matching line-ups much like West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins in an effort to find the best mix of talent and execution for a senior-laden Red Storm squad. Lavin, who spent several years as an ESPN analyst after coaching UCLA, has immediately boosted the skill level in Queens, where SJU has struggled for years to capitalize on getting the best out of the New York City area. The lone player to start all 10 games is guard Dwight Hardy (6-2, 196 lbs.). The upperclassmen averages a team-best 15.5 points with about three boards per game. Hardy, SJU's two-man, is an excellent shooter who has yet to hone in this season. He is making just 29 percent (18 of 62) from three-point range, where more than half of his shots are taken. He is deadly from the line at 87.8 percent, and his quickness off the dribble to access the lane and get into defenders enables him to get there often. His athleticism carries onto the defensive side as well, where he has a team-best 15 steals.

The Bronx native is paired with point guard Malik Boothe (5-9, 184 lbs.) in the backcourt. Boothe, who has seemingly played for the Red Storm for a decade -- he is, finally, a senior --nets the fewest points of any starter at five with a couple rebounds a game. A pure distributor, Boothe has a 37 to 13 assist-to-turnover ratio. He is very quick and uses his ability to drive to mainly kick to better shooters. Boothe has missed 28 of 39 shots thus far, including eight of 11 from three. He gets to the line well, but is making only 64 percent from there. The match-up with WVU counterpart Joe Mazzulla should be a battle of tough, physical players who look to involve others before taking shots themselves. Both are above-average defenders who continually harass foes, and will match each other on each end.

Swingman D.J. Kennedy (6-5, 214 lbs.), another fourth-year player, can play three slots (the two, three and four). He exels, however, at the small forward slot where his mix of decent size and skill is best utilized. Kennedy has made more than 50 percent from the field this season, and is working the offensive glass better than any of his teammates. His 5.7 offensive rebounds are second on a team average to below in that area, and the Pittsburgh native is a sort of glue guy in that he blends well in the back and front courts and makes the plays that go unnoted on the box score but help the Storm stay in games. Power forward Justin Brownlee (6-7, 219 lbs.) is second on the squad at 14 points per game. A bulky, physical forward, Brownlee plays equally well facing or with his back to the bucket. He can score inside and out, and will take the occasional three, but is most effective from 10 feet and in. He lacks the height of most four men, but has perhaps better athleticism and the ability to get and stay on a hot streak. Conversely, he can also endure cold stretches when he tries at times to use his solid ball handling skills away from the rim. If he stays within himself, Lavin will have a steady contributor throughout the year.

Center Dele Coker (6-10, 257 lbs.), yet another senior, is the obvious size the coaching staff needs. SJU is smaller than most Big East teams on a per-position basis, but Coker gives the Storm a boost there, especially on the defensive end. He averages less than two points and two rebounds a game, but like Brownlee will block and alter shots defensively. He has played in six of 10 games this season, stating three, and will be a formidable match for Kevin Jones' offensive abilities. Lavin won't get much out of the Nigeria native on offense, but with his size and the scoring ability of the other four starters, that's a secondary concern.
Game Info
Wed. Dec. 29
7:00 p.m. EST

WVU Coliseum
WVU 8-2, 0-0
St. John's 7-3, 0-0
WVU 20-15
Big East Network
Sirius Channel: 127
WVU - 5
St. John's - 24

Lavin does have the luxury of a reasonably deep, if not experienced, bench in his initial season. He has routinely played nine to 10 players a game, with Paris Horne, Dwayne Polee II and Justin Burrell seeing the most minutes at 24, 15 and 18, respectively. Horne (6-3, 189 lbs.), a senior, is the primary guard reserve. He has started twice and is hitting 49 percent from the floor, 39 from three. He averages seven points and three boards, but doesn't shoot it well from the line. In an end-game, offense-defense situation, this will be Lavin's defensive choice over any other two-guard. Horne's length and ability to stay in front of opposing players make him invaluable on that end. On offense, Horne would rather play in transition than the half court, and he likes tio attack the rim in the open floor rather than out of sets. This is a nice six-man and one where Lavin can trade a bit less offense for better defense as a foe and game situations dictate. Polee II (6-7, 193 lbs.) and Burrell (6-8, 244 lbs.) give the staff a freshman-senior combo off the bench. Polee II, out of Westchester High in Los Angeles, is a solid, svelte athlete with a great vertical. He runs the floor well, but can't match more experienced players in strength. He will continually challenge the rim in transition, and his leaping ability is impressive and the route for most of his six points and three rebounds per outing. Still, he can't yet navigate the interior against more finished, tougher talent, and can wilt at times in a half court, in-the-paint game.

Burrell, the more physical, tenacious banger, scores six points a game and averages a team-high 5.9 rebounds. He has great bulk, and has made 22 of 38 shots this season, all inside the arc. His putback ability is very good, and a solid addition to a decent midrange jumper. This is yet another New York-based player who likes to run, and does so with surprising alacrity despite the size. WVU must keep him off the glass, and it can play physically, as Burrell is making less than 50 percent from the stripe. Guard Malik Stith (5-11, 184 lbs.) and forward Sean Evans (6-8, 269 lbs.) round out the latter five. Stith primarily mans the point slot and nets five points and a couple rebounds and assists per game in 21 minutes. He won't hesitate to shoot it, but does involve teammates well. Evans, two points and a board per game, only plays about eight minutes and is used primarily in spurts to dog an opposing team's best interior player. He has taken just 16 shots, and isn't active on the offensive end.


St. John's is going through much the same issues as other teams with a first-year coach. Lavin has a roster with 10 seniors, a junior, four sophomores and a freshman. There were not many scholarships available coming into the season, but the staff will have a plethora of them following this year. SJU has great skill and athletic ability, and a decent mix of shooters, pass-first players and quality defenders. But though many have played together for years, they have not played together in Lavin's system and style. The Red Storm has too much talent and overall experience to lose 18 to 20 games this year, but its growing pain-type problems will hinder it in what is developing into a very good Big East conference. West Virginia must challenge the guards, protect the rim and not get into an up-and-down game. A grind-it style would better suit the Mountaineers, who of now are inconsistent at best. If WVU doesn't shoot the three well, it could struggle to get a much-needed win. SJU's height isn't a concern, and indeed West Virginia should be able to rebound in this contest as well s it will any in the league. Slow the pace, play methodical, tough defense and take advantage of offensive chances. Neither team is even very good right now, but at home, facing a first-year staff, West Virginia badly needs this win. Chalk this up as a sort of early measuring stick.


WVU: None.

St. John‘s: F Rob Thomas (Knee), Out.


West Virginia has won 10 consecutive series games, including five in a row at the Coliseum. The Mountaineers have won 41 of their last 44 December games and 34 in a row at home during the month.

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WVU is just 7-8 in Big East openers, but 2-1 under Huggins. It is 40-7 at home under the coach; all seven losses have come in league play. The Mountaineers are playing for their 450th all-time win at the Coliseum against 127 losses (.778%).

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West Virginia is 13-5 in Big East contests versus St. John's. The last Red Storm win in Morgantown was on Feb. 9, 1999. Huggins is 4-0 against SJU. Lavin is 1-0 against Huggins, his 2002 UCLA team having defeated Cincinnati 105-101 in two overtimes in the second round of the 2002 NCAA Tournament.

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SJU is 0-2 on the road this season. WVU is 4-0 in true home games.

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