A Steady Hand

Poor starts have plagued the WVU men's basketball team in each of its last two contests, but that doesn't mean the team's head coach is placing any extra emphasis on coming out of the gates more quickly as the Mountaineers prepare for perhaps their toughest test of the year thus far.

"(A better start) would certainly help, but we've got to play for 40 minutes," said Bob Huggins before his team's Friday afternoon practice. "It doesn't matter if we get off to a great start and then not finish the game. It's a matter of us playing the way we're capable of playing for 40 minutes."

"I don't know if (starting quickly) is vital, but it would sure help my blood pressure. I think they're like everybody. Everybody has spurts."

The "they" Huggins referred to is the No. 5 Orange of Syracuse. After starting off the season unranked and unheralded (particularly after an exhibition loss to Division II LeMoyne), head coach Jim Boeheim's squad has impressed in its first 17 games, earning 16 wins.

SU's lone loss came at the hands of a surging Pittsburgh team in an 82-72 surprise at the Carrier Dome. The Orange won't get to play in front of their home fans Saturday, as the WVU Coliseum will host a match-up of two top 10 teams for the first time in its nearly 40 year existence.

That could be a factor, as Syracuse has played only two true road games this season. It has come out a winner on both of those occasions (at Seton Hall and Rutgers).

A third contest in which SU was designated as the visiting squad was an impressive early-season 87-71 victory over then-No. 4 North Carolina in the title game of the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden.

A capacity house is expected at the Coliseum for the noon game, which will be televised by ESPN. While the buzz has been building in Morgantown leading up to the game, Huggins said he still felt like that was as much about the opponent as his team.

"This is what I've hoped it would be like all of the time," said the third-year WVU coach. "All of you guys (in the media) -- half of you I've never seen before. I hoped when we get this thing rolling, it would be like this all the time."

"Everybody's coming because it's two top 10 teams. I'd just as soon they come because it's us. I'd just as soon we have this kind of atmosphere for Coppin State. When that happens, that's when you're really good."

The game also pits two of the game's top coaching minds against one another, as Boeheim is one of only three active mentors ahead of Huggins on the list of all-time winningest coaches.

The two have become increasingly well-acquainted since Huggins entered the Big East Conference when he returned to coach his alma mater, but he said he has always admired the way Boeheim's teams play -- despite being vastly different in terms of style of play from his own teams.

"He's a great coach," said Huggins. "He's won with so many different types of players and teams."

"I think he's perfected the 2-3 zone. A lot of people play 2-3 zone, but they do it just to change up tempo or to pack it in because they don't think they can guard inside, but he's perfected it. He's done an unbelievable job and they make great adjustments out of it."

Indeed, that common defense has become the staple and trademark of Boeheim's Syracuse teams.

While the Mountaineers settled for 37 attempts from 3-point range when facing a Notre Dame team that played a lot of 2-3 zone in the Irish's 70-68 win last Saturday, Huggins said his team has to almost forget that experience and learn to attack in a different manner because of the way the Orange extend their version of the zone.

"I think we take more from the two games we played a year ago (against SU) than we do from (facing) anybody else's zone," Huggins said. "They do so many more things out of it. They'll trap the wings out of it. They'll trap the corner and the short-corner. They don't do it all the time. They do a great job of keeping you off balance."

Statistically, Syracuse has impressed on both ends of the floor thus far, leading the Big East in both steals and field goal percentage. Huggins said those two numbers almost go hand-in-hand.

"That's kind of what happens when you're shooting a lot of layups," he said.

"So much of their offense is generated from their defense. It's easier to run out of a zone than it is out of a man-to-man, because you always know where your guards are. They do a great job of running off turnovers. They really turn you over. And their field goal percentage is indicative of the fact that they get a lot of easy baskets."

While many hadn't seen a big year in store for the Orange because of the losses of stars Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf from last year's squad (which beat WVU in the Big East Tournament semifinals), other players have stepped up to fill their proverbial shoes.

Iowa State transfer Wes Johnson is one of those burgeoning talents. After sitting out last season due to NCAA rules on transferring, the 6-foot-7 forward has become the leader of Boeheim's squad in almost all areas.

He averages team-highs in both points (17.0) and rebounds (9.0), while ranking second on the squad in blocks (1.9), steals (1.8) and free throw percentage (75.0). Despite his intensity on the glass and on defense, he commits only 1.9 fouls per game, on average.

"He brings terrific athletic ability," Huggins said. "He's probably as good of an athlete as there is in our league, and he's very skilled. He shoots it. I think he's averaging nine rebounds a game as well. He does a lot of things for them."

Indeed, while much of the focus is on the lofty rankings each school holds in advance of Saturday's meeting and the combined win totals of the two coaches involved, Huggins said, like any other game, the outcome will likely be in favor of the team that makes fewer mistakes.

"I think maybe (coaching makes an impact on the outcome) if you coach against somebody who can't coach," he said. "In our league, there's so many guys that everybody knows can coach."

"They'll have a good scheme to attack what we do, and hopefully we'll have a good scheme to attack what they do. It comes down to which team executes the best."

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