Preview: West Virginia - St. John's

Two similar teams clash as West Virginia plays host to St. John's on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

SCOUTING THE RED STORM

The obvious: West Virginia needs this game. It's currently 18th in RealTimeRPI.com's rankings, and has the 14th-best strength of schedule, a number that expects to drop after this game but should easily improve over the next three weeks. This is one of just two games over the next eight against unranked teams, and its location at the Coliseum makes it close to a must win in terms of continuing an NCAA Tournament worthy season. Add that six of the next eight are on the road, and this chance to get another victory has to be seized.

It won't be as easy as some assume. Perhaps no other team in the Big East mirrors the Mountaineers as much as St. John's. The Red Storm suffered major injuries when Anthony Mason, Jr. went down for the year with a leg injury and Malik Boothe, the team's only true point guard, tore a tendon in his left thumb. Boothe is nearing a return, but is expected out for the game against WVU. Like WVU's Joe Mazulla, Boothe and Mason, Jr. were key components in all phases of play, and their departure has left a hole in the roster that thus far has not been filled. The line-ups are also similar, with head coach Norm Roberts' not starting a player taller than 6-8 and lacking decent experience. Forwards Justin Burrell (6-8, 240 pounds) and Sean Evans (6-8, 250 pounds) are undersized compared with other Big East frontcourts. Both average about 10 points per game, with Evans edging Burrell 6.3 to 4.6 boards per game. Burrell has more of an outside game, but won't take many shots from beyond the arc. Both have more than double the turnovers to assists, however, which is somewhat offsetting their solid inside shooting. WVU can also foul Evans without worry, as the sophomore is making just 42.7 percent from the foul line.

SJU's three-guard set is led by de facto point player Paris Horne and D.J. Kennedy. Horne, 6-3, 185 pounds, averages 14 points per game and has tallied 26 steals. He is prone to turnovers as often as he registers assists, however, and this is one game where Truck Bryant should be able to play well. Kennedy, the team's second-leading scorer at 13.3 points per outing, has shot well from close range but is struggling from the outside. The 6-6, 210-pounder can attack the basket, however, and he'll toss up a miss just to go and get the rebound. His 6.9 rebounds per game lead the team and are among the tops in the league for a guard. The third backcourt player, Quincy Roberts (6-5, 190 pounds) is the lone freshman in a starting line-up made otherwise of sophomores. He isn't asked to do much and hasn't found his touch from anywhere on the floor. He's the fifth option, and will turn the ball over – a pattern as the Red Storm shows 286 turnovers to 243 assists, a ratio that's worst than that of opponents.

The bench is thin. Forward Rob Thomas (6-6, 226 pounds) provides some athleticism and scoring ability. His strength and skill are above average, but he needs some floor time to develop. The redshirt sophomore has played in 15 games, starting two, and averages six points and three boards. Dele Coker, a 6-10, 260-pound forward/center could be the answer to Roberts' need for better size. But the sophomore needs better conditioning and he lacks the toughness and ability around the basket to play against the Big East's best. He is a solid defender, though, and one who eats space and can block shots. Guard Tyshawn Edmondson, 6-4, 170 pounds, plays about 10 minutes per game, spelling whoever is in foul trouble or needs a breather. Edmondson, a freshman, has great quickness and can score from anywhere while also running the break. But he needs to gain weight and bulk to take the league's pounding, and he can't muscle up well in the lane. He's also shot horribly, making 25 percent from the field, including 15 percent from three-point range on 20 tries.

OUTLOOK

This is a team that doesn't take care of the ball. St. John's can be sloppy on offense and often rushes shots. Their sophomores, however, have more experience than WVU's second-year players, let alone the Mountaineer freshmen, and one would think the team would begin to jell soon. The problem for Roberts has been horrific outside shooting – SJU has made just 30.6 percent of its 402 three-pointers. And with a line-up lacking in size and seasoned depth, settling for the long sot has developed into a costly pattern. Look for West Virginia to challenge those shots, but not at the risk of giving up anything on the inside. WVU head coach Bob Huggins will likely allow the Red Storm to bomb away as they wish until they show they can make enough baskets from their to counteract the Mountaineers' own offense.

BlueGoldNews.com
Game Info
Wed. Jan. 28
7 p.m. EST

WVU Coliseum
Records
WVU 14-5, 3-3
St. John's 11-8, 2-5
Series
West Virginia 18-13
TV
Big East Network
MSN Radio
RPI
WVU - 18
St. John's - 113

As has often occured in recent years, St. John's as athletes, but ones that aren't great basketball players. The school hasn't been able to consistently recruit upper-level Big East players, and as such have lost more conference games than they have won for several years. What used to be a dreaded trip to Madison Square Garden or Jamaica in Queens is now viewed as a solid road trip that should result in a win. SJU has lost eight straight in the series to West Virginia and hasn't recorded a victory over the Mountaineers this century. The last time, in fact, that St. John's managed a series win came in 1999, when WVU floundered through a sub-par season. This should be another one of those games in which West Virginia's smothering defense and its athletes and basketball ability outpaces the opponent. Unless SJU gets hot from the outside for the first time this year, look for the Mountaineers to roll.

The only ‘if' would be a hangover effect from the loss to Pitt. WVU is on one fewer day of rest because of the Sunday afternoon tip, and it seemed as though the team dragged in the latter stags of the game against the Panthers. Part of it was surely the foe. The hope is that part of it isn't the weakening of freshman legs. Huggins has noted that, because the Mountaineers have played 19 games, the freshman should be sophomores as that amount is about what a high school team's complete schedule would comprise. It's a bit of a disconnect, as the play is much more difficult in longer games, but it's also a way for Huggins to nudge players along and attempt to keep his team developing as the conference slate wears on. This won't be a pretty game, but as long as West Virginia plays physically and competes on the boards, it should be fine. A slow start with average shooting and a less-than-enthusiastic crowd – cold temperatures, snowfall, a mediocre foe and the Wednesday night date – are likely in the making. This is the definitive get-through game.

INJURY REPORT

WVU: Joe Mazzulla, out (shoulder). Jonnie West, out (broken foot).

St. John's: Anthony Mason, Jr., out (leg injury). Malik Boothe, out (torn left thumb tendon).

FAST BREAKS

Huggins will be in sole possession of 27th place on the all-time Division I men's basketball head coaching wins list with a victory. He currently has 630 wins, tying him with Cam Henderson. He is just three wins from 26th place, and his two-year record at West Virginia, at its current pace, will far exceed his first two seasons anywhere else in his head coaching history.

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St. John's is 1-4 away from home during the 2008-09 season, having defeated Cornell, 86-75, and losing 82-70, to Boston College in the NIT Season Tip-Off, both at B.C.'s Conte Forum. The Red Storm also fell at Providence in its conference-opener, 75-54, on Jan. 31, lost at then-No. 1 Pitt, 90-67, at the Petersen Events Center on Jan. 11, and fell at then-No. 22 Villanova, 76-57, on Jan. 18.

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WVU will be trying for its 50th home win in four years – more than a few of which have come at the expense of St. John's. The Red Storm looks to halt an eight-game series losing skid, which includes West Virginia wins in four of the last six contests. STJ looks for its first win in Morgantown since Jan. 8, 2000, after falling twice to the Mountaineers last season, both by nine points. WVU took its home meeting, 73-64, on Jan. 17, 2008, and also won at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 2008, 83-74 in overtime. SJU has not beaten West Virginia in this century.

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West Virginia is winning home games under Huggins by an average of more than 20 points.


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