A Storm Brewing

In the wake of an emotional win over arch-rival Pittsburgh and just before the nation's No. 2-ranked team travels to Morgantown, the WVU men's basketball team will try to avoid a letdown when its starters play a de facto homecoming game against St. John's.

The No. 6 Mountaineers (18-3, 7-2) will try to extend the program's winning streak over the Red Storm to 10 games on Saturday at noon.

For a group of five West Virginia starters who all hail from either New York or New Jersey, the chance to play at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan is always an exciting one, even if that opportunity comes annually with the Big East Conference Tournament in March.

"I don't pay attention to a lot of stuff, for obvious reasons," joked WVU head coach Bob Huggins. "But I'm standing back there in the tunnel for one of the games, and it hit me that our five starters are all from (the) New York (area)."

"I think it's important to them. Anybody would be geeked up to go home and play."

But as a former Mountaineer himself, Huggins also got the chance to play inside "The World's Most Famous Arena." He said that opportunity was one that has stuck out in his mind in the decades since, and that the chance to play at MSG isn't just an exciting proposition for New Yorkers.

"It's a thrill for everybody," said the Morgantown born and Ohio bred head coach. "I grew up in a town of 500 people, and the first time I got to go play in the Garden, it was a thrill for me."

"I think the first time I went there, the Knicks were in there finishing their shoot-around. Bill Bradley and Walt Frazier and those guys were out there shooting balls. The basket seemed a lot larger for them than it did for me."

West Virginia will hope those rims look equally small for the Red Storm on Saturday.

Head coach Norm Roberts' team has lost four games in a row and seven of its last nine. Most recently, St. John's dropped to 12-9 overall and 2-7 in Big East play with an 84-72 loss at Rutgers.

But that doesn't mean Huggins expects the hosts to not put up a test. With a starting line-up that features one senior and four juniors, experience shouldn't be an issue for the Red Storm.

Huggins also said some of the opposition's players, like guard D.J. Kennedy (15.5 points, 6.5 rebounds per game) and forward Sean Evans (7.2 points, 6.6 rebounds on average) have the talent it takes to win.

So the struggles of St. John's remain a mystery to the Mountaineers' third-year head coach.

"I think continuity is really important," Huggins said.

"(The current starters) have carried the load for a couple years for them, and you watch film of them and it's hard to say (why they've struggled)."

But it hasn't been all bad lately for Roberts and company.

The team held a six point lead in a Jan. 28 game at Pittsburgh, and was within two points with less than two minutes remaining before the then-No. 17 Panthers pulled away for a 63-53 win.

St. John's also had a lead of as many as 11 points when it hosted then-No. 4 Villanova on Jan. 23. But a 28.9 percent shooting performance in the second half ended any thoughts of an upset, and the Wildcats earned an 81-71 victory at Madison Square Garden.

"They've played very very well at times," Huggins said, succinctly.

But beyond the threat posed by the Red Storm, the WVU head coach will have to hope his team can avoid an emotional letdown in between emotional games against those same Pittsburgh and Villanova squads.

That doesn't mean the fourth-winningest active head coach in major college basketball has had to spend time crafting motivational speeches.

"We don't talk about that much," Huggins said. "We just go out and play. I've been, obviously, in that situation (highly ranked and in between big games) a lot of times. Where you want to get the program to is that you're everybody's big game."

"We ought to be circled on everybody's schedule, if we're going to be what we want to be."

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