MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Bob Huggins spent Christmas at his cabin in front of the fireplace surrounded by his immediate family and an armful of St. John’s tapes to watch.
When he was done opening packages and got around to those St. John’s tapes, what he undoubtedly saw was an improving Red Storm team that his Mountaineers will face when they eventually get to Morgantown after digging out of last weekend’s snow storm.
St. John’s is now 7-3 after back-to-back victories over Davidson and Northwestern at the Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival in New York City. Against Davidson (a team West Virginia defeated 84-70 in Puerto Rico a week before Thanksgiving) St. John’s got 17 points from D.J. Kennedy and 12 from guard Dwight Hardy.
A day later, Hardy scored 24 and forward Justin Brownlee added 21 points and six rebounds to help St. John’s knock off Northwestern 85-69. The Red Storm outscored the Wildcats 48-29 in the second half after trailing 40-37 at halftime.
Hardy is the only St. John’s player to start all 10 games this season and leads the team in scoring with an average of 15.5 points per game. Hardy is second on the team in assists with 26 and is tied for the team lead with 15 steals. He’s shooting 41.6 percent overall, although he is making just 29 percent of his 3-point tries despite attempting more than six per game.
Brownlee, a 6-foot-7 senior, shows averages of 14.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. D.J. Kennedy, a 6-foot-5 senior, is averaging 12.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Hardy, Brownlee and Kennedy are expected to be in the starting lineup Wednesday night along with 6-foot-10 senior center Dele Coker and 5-foot-9 senior guard Malik Boothe.
Former UCLA coach and ESPN television analyst Steve Lavin is in his first season coaching St. John’s. His three losses have come against St. Mary’s, St. Bonaventure and Fordham.
West Virginia, meanwhile, is 8-2 but has not played a game that counts since beating Cleveland State 74-63 at the WVU Coliseum on Dec. 18. The Mountaineers played an exhibition game against Walsh on Dec. 22 in an attempt to remain somewhat sharp before beginning conference play on Wednesday night.
Including the St. John’s game, West Virginia will play four Big East games in a span of nine days. Huggins says he’s still in the process of trying to work out the kinks in a team that he believes has a lot of room for improvement.
“These guys are not close to where I’d like them to be in any area,” he said after last Wednesday night’s 83-63 exhibition win over Walsh. “We haven’t passed the ball very well. We turn it over way too much. We haven’t rebounded the ball very well. Our offensive rebounding is not close to where it needs to be.”
He didn’t stop there.
“We don’t run offense. We didn’t guard very well today and our transition defense wasn’t very good,” he said. “We ran to the 3 and stopped in transition instead of running transition. Out of bounds plays we had guys wide open and we didn’t see them – probably because we didn’t look at them. I’d be hard pressed to find an area where I said, yeah, we’re pretty good at that.”
Despite that, Huggins believes his team is better than it was a month ago but he’s looking for more consistency, especially now that the Mountaineers are about to begin Big East play.
“We take a couple of steps forward and then we take a step backwards,” he said. “It’s not very consistent.”
Huggins has spent that last few weeks juggling his starting lineup looking for the right combinations. Nine different players have started at least one game this year and a possible five for Wednesday night might be Kevin Jones (12.8 ppg., 6.5 rpg.), John Flowers (9.4 ppg., 7.2 rpg.) and Deniz Kilicli (5.5 ppg., 3.4 rpg.) at forwards with Truck Bryant (11.4 ppg., 2.8 rpg.) and Casey Mitchell (17.5 ppg., 3.0 rpg.) at guards.
West Virginia has won the last 10 meetings against St. John’s, including the last five games in Morgantown. WVU is 7-8 overall in Big East openers but has won its last two conference openers under Huggins.
Tickets are still available and can be purchased online through WVUGAME.com. The Big East Network (John Sanders and Bob Wenzel) will televise the game. In addition to local affiliates, the game can also be seen on ESPN3.com and ESPN Full Court.