New coach Norm Roberts has St. John's playing much better than most observers anticipated. Rising from the ashes of the prostitution scandal that rocked the program last year, Roberts, much as John Beilein did during his first year at WVU, has the Johnnies playing tough, competitive basketball. St. John's is 6-5 on the year, with wins over N.C. State and Virginia Tech on its resume.
All discussion of Red Storm personnel has to begin with guard Daryll Hill. The six-foot, 170-pound sophomore keys the offense, averaging 18.5 points going into Tuesday's loss at Syracuse. Hill has taken 52 more shots than any of his teammates, and that margin figures to grow in the upcoming weeks.
Teaming with Hill in the backcourt are a pair of freshmen that have acquitted themselves well in the early going. Eugene Lawrence (6-1, 205) and Cedric Jackson (6-2, 190) are combining to average 15 points, eight rebounds and six assists per game. Jackson has been a starter for most of the season, while Lawrence just recently moved into that role to replace Rodney Epperson, who is being held out pending review of his transcripts from Barton County Community College from the 2002-03 school year.
The frontcourt is similarly young, with sophomore Lamont Hamilton (6-9, 235) and freshman Dexter Gray (6-6, 215) holding down the starting spots. Hamilton is doing very well as he battles taller foes in the conference, averaging 13.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Like his freshmen mates in the backcourt, Gray has also been a solid contributor, chipping in with 8.0 points and 4.9 boards per outing.
With Epperson out, the SJU rotation has been somewhat shortened. Junior swingman Ryan Williams (6-5, 220) averages 3.7 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, and is the only player off the bench getting double figure minutes. Sophomore Tyler Jones (6-9, 215) and senior Phil Missere (6-8, 200) provide some additional height, but not much offensive productivity, up front.
While Hill has the green light to shoot as soon as he gets off the bus, Nichols, who may be seeing more time in relief of the hobbling J.D. Collins, has to remember his role in the Mountaineer offense.
|Sat Jan. 8|
WVU 10-1, 0-1
SJ 6-5, 0-1
Big East Local
WVU - 24
SJ - 165
Nichols, who had been making good progress, seemed to regress against Villanova. While the young freshman didn't stumble against George Washington's pressure defense, he appeared tentative and indecisive for much of the game against the Wildcats. Many times, Nichols looked to give the ball up rather than bring it upcourt against his defender, and he appeared confused in the offense on several occasions.
While things like that are going to happen, especially to freshmen, Nichols now has to know that he is going to be a target for pressure. Opponents, watching the Villanova tape, will likely try to repeat the same tactics that rattled the Virginia native in that contest. Hill, a confident player know to speak his mind on the court, will likely be in Nichols' face early and often.
The good thing is that Nichols has the tools to combat pressure tactics. He's very fast with the ball, he handles the rock well, and he has the intelligence to recognize what opposing defenses are trying to. It's just a matter of putting it all together, and gaining enough experience so that he doesn't commit the same mistakes he did against the Wildcats.
WVU: J.D. Collins (Ankle) Questionable, Patrick Beilein (Ankle) Questionable, Mike Gansey (Eye) Will Play
SJ: Jermaine Maybank (Knee) Out
There are a few games every year where it doesn't really matter what your opponent does, but what you do. With no disrespect intended toward the Red Storm, this is one of those games.
After Wednesday night's ugly performance against Villanova, this game is more about the Mountaineers getting back into the right frame of mind than it is about matchups or adjustments. While this is obviously a game that WVU needs to have in the win column, it will also provide an important read on how resilient this West Virginia squad is.
Bad performances and ugly losses are going to happen to all but a handful of teams during the NCAA season. With 27 games, plus various tournaments, no college team is going to put on a clinic every time out. The key is how the team handles the aftermath of such a performance. Will WVU put that loss behind it, and come out with the same level of play it has exhibited in just about every other contest this season? Or will the Mountaineers hang their heads, mope about the ugly loss, and let it affect this game as well?
The answer that Mountaineer fans get on Saturday night may well provide a looking glass for the rest of the season. WVU is going to lose a few more Big East games. The question is, how will they play three or four days later?
I rarely predict performances, but this is one time I feel rather confident in making a call. This team is loaded with character guys. They are classy, confident, work hard and believe in themselves and in each other. It's going to take a lot more than one setback to knock this team off its feet.
As part of its self-imposed punishment for last year's prostitution scandal, St. John's is not eligible to participate in post-season play this year. That ban automatically extends to the Big East postseason tournament, meaning that only 11 teams will make the trip to New York this year. That affects the Big East tournament structure as well. Only three games, instead of the usual four, will be played on the first day, and the top five finishers in the conference, rather than the usual four, will get a bye in the opening round.
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WVU has faced a number of good free throw shooting teams so far, and that trend will continue against the Red Storm. Mountaineer opponents have made 75.3% of their charity tosses against WVU so far this year. St. John's, hitting 73.7% so far this year, doesn't figure to lower that number appreciably.
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In a ceremony on November 23rd, St. John's renamed it's home campus basketball venue. The former Alumni Hall is now known as Carnesecca Arena, in honor of long-time coach Lou Carnesecca. The Red Storm didn't do its part to make the evening a total success, however, as they dropped a 53-52 decision to St. Francis. It was the Terriers' first win over St. John's since Jan. 21, 1956, ending a 26-game losing streak.
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In an attempt to entice students back to games, St. John's began offering 1,600 free tickets to students for each game this year. Compare that to West Virginia, where students have never been charged for admission to regular season games.
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St. John's head coach Norm Roberts is the only Big East coach with a career winning percentage below .552. Roberts has some work to do to reach that mark, as he currently sports a 29-89 record.