If you're looking for a couple of words to associate with the month of January, chances are that "freezing" and "snow" will be two of the first that come to mind. Yet as the temperatures outside continue to drop, the action inside Big East arenas is heating up as the annual conference slate begins in the nation's best basketball conference.
For West Virginia (10-2), league play begins on Saturday with a trip to the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. where the Mountaineers will take on Seton Hall. The Pirates (9-4) tipped off their 2008-09 conference slate on the wrong end of a decisive 100-76 defeat in Syracuse on Tuesday night.
Although the lopsided nature of the loss might lead one to think that Seton Hall won't provide much of a challenge for WVU, head coach Bob Huggins couldn't disagree more. SHU's loss to the Orange, he says, was more a product of Syracuse getting hot than Seton Hall lying down.
"If you watch the tape, Syracuse made some hard shots," Huggins said on Friday before his team left for the Garden State. "I think Syracuse shot it as well as I think they're going to shoot it. That happens sometimes. People just come out and make shots. (SU guard Andy) Rautins made some, so maybe they tried to shade him more. Then, (Eric) Devendorf made them and Jonny Flynn made them. It's one of those things where I think (Syracuse) got some confidence and it started to snowball. I don't think it's any indication at all (of Seton Hall's defense)."
Also, the Pirates were without the services of head coach Bobby Gonzalez, who was serving a Big East mandated one-game suspension for criticizing conference officials in the wake of a heartbreaking loss to rival Rutgers on the final day of the 2007-08 regular season. Gonzalez reportedly traveled with the team to Central New York, and conducted the morning shootaround at the Carrier Dome before handing over the reins temporarily to assistant coach Dermon Player for the evening.
One bright spot for the Pirates against SU was the play of forward Robert Mitchell, a sophomore from Brooklyn who spent his freshman season at Duquesne before transferring back to his home area. Mitchell was the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year for the 2006-07 season, and currently boasts averages of 16.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.
"He gets a lot of stuff done," Huggins said. "I mean, he's averaging eight rebounds a game. He's not a lot thicker than Devin (Ebanks) is. He handles the ball, he shoots it. He can shoot the three. He passes it. He's been really good for them."
So, too, has sophomore guard Jeremy Hazell, who put on a one-man show against the Mountaineers, sinking 11 of his 18 shot attempts to finish with 30 points in the Seton Hall loss. Hazell plays the game with a distinct lack of shyness, routinely taking shots with players in his face. He averages a team-best 22.5 points per game and is shooting better than 43 percent from the field this season.
Hazell's style of play is a microcosm of the Pirates in general. Whereas other Big East opponents such as Georgetown and Notre Dame are very meticulous in their half-court sets, Seton Hall is the opposite.
"They don't have as much structure," Huggins noted. "They run some sets, but they just kind of run some sets to get you moving so they can break you down off the dribble. They're really good at breaking you down off the dribble, and they are really good at playing in transition. They want to play with numbers. They don't want to play half-court five-on-five. They want to play with numbers. They use their press to speed you up."
As for his team, Huggins feels that the Mountaineers are eagerly anticipating the beginning of conference play.
"We're as ready as we can be I guess," he said. "We've had a week to go to work. It's not like a regular week with the holidays and everything, but I think we're fine. I think we'll be ready to go."