MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia doesn’t have long to figure out what went wrong at St. John’s on Wednesday night. That’s because third-ranked Syracuse awaits the Mountaineers Saturday afternoon at the Carrier Dome.
West Virginia, coming off a disappointing 78-62 loss against the Red Storm in Madison Square Garden, will be playing in an even tougher venue on Saturday.
West Virginia has defeated Syracuse in the Dome just once in nine tries, that coming in 1997 when Gale Catlett’s WVU squad routed the Orange 101-79. Since then, the Mountaineers have dropped their last eight against Syracuse in the Dome by an average margin of 14 points per game.
The most competitive of those losses came in 2006 when John Beilein’s team led Syracuse 30-29 at halftime before falling by two, 60-58. Bob Huggins’ previous two games at Syracuse in 2009 and 2011 resulted in 74-61 and 63-52 losses.
“We’re looking forward to playing Syracuse,” said Huggins. “I think they’re terrific. They score so much off their defense and they do a good job of running downhill at you. We’re going to have to do a much better job with ball security than what we did (Wednesday night).”
The Mountaineers are expecting another very difficult assignment this weekend against Syracuse – with or without 7-foot center Fab Melo, who was averaging 7.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and a team-best 60 blocked shots before being sidelined with academic issues.
Without Melo, the Orange dropped their first game of the season at Notre Dame last Saturday night before bouncing back to win at Cincinnati, 60-53, on Big Monday. Against the Bearcats, 6-foot-9 freshman forward Rakeem Christmas stepped in to pull down a season-high nine rebounds in Melo’s absence.
It is unknown whether or not Melo will be cleared for Saturday’s game against West Virginia, or if he will be available for the remainder of the season.
With Melo, Syracuse (20-1, 8-1) is likely the best team in the country. Without him, they are still among the best with a deep roster that features nine players averaging at least 12 minutes per game, and six averaging seven points or more, not including Melo.
Six-seven forward Kris Joseph is averaging a team-best 13.7 points per game and has made a team-high 32 3-point field goals. Six-four sophomore guard Dion Waiters is providing 12.5 points per game coming off the bench, while 6-foot-4 junior guard Brandon Triche is averaging a shade below 10 points per game.
Scoop Jardine (8.5 ppg.), C.J. Fair (8.4 ppg.) and Jam Southerland (7.9 ppg.) can also score when needed.
“Obviously they’re really good,” said Huggins. “They’ve got a lot of players and Jim (Boeheim) does a great job of putting them in positions where they can be successful. We’ve got to get a whole lot better in a very short period of time if we want to have a chance on Saturday.”
West Virginia’s three-game win streak ended in New York City Wednesday night when the Mountaineers dropped a 16-point decision to the Johnnies. West Virginia struggled to score against the 1-2-2 zone defense St. John’s used, the Mountaineers shooting just 35.4 percent for the game, including a frigid 22.7 percent from behind the 3-point arc.
West Virginia also gave up the most points to the Red Storm since an 83-81 overtime loss to Baylor on Dec. 23.
“St. John’s played really well,” said Huggins. “And for whatever reason, we weren’t real excited about playing.”
The one player who did perform against St. John's was Kevin Jones, coming off a 26-point, 14-rebound effort – his sixth straight 20-point game and the 13th this season. Jones continues to lead the Big East Conference in scoring and rebounding and is 10th nationally in scoring and fourth nationally in rebounding.
“He’s having a great year,” said Boeheim. “He’s scoring and rebounding and he’s a very good defensive player. He’s probably having a good a year, or better year, than anybody in our league this year.”
Huggins said the senior has improved in every facet of his game.
“I don’t know how much he’s substantially gotten better at anything; I think he’s gotten better at everything,” Huggins said. “I think the main thing is he’s just playing with so much confidence. At the start of last year I think he felt a little pressure. There were a lot of people saying he needed to step in and do what Da’Sean (Butler) did. We have a young basketball team and I think he kind of relishes the idea that people are depending on him.”
It will be important on Saturday for Jones’ supporting cast to step up and make some shots, particularly senior guard Truck Bryant, who is mired in a 20 for 74 shooting slump over his last five games. Bryant has had some terrific offensive performances this season - specifically 24 against Kansas State, 27 against Miami, 34 against Villanova, 29 against Rutgers and 25 against Georgetown - and the Mountaineers will need him to knock down some outside shots against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. Bryant is second on the team in scoring averaging 17.4 points per game.
“He’s been a good player since he got there,” said Boeheim of Bryant. “He started right out doing good things and he’s continued to do good things. He’s been one of the best backcourt players for an extended period of time.”
West Virginia will also need to get more from junior forward Deniz Kilicli, who shows averages of 10.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Kilicli is coming off his lowest offensive output this season by scoring only 4 points at St. John’s on Wednesday.
Saturday’s game marks the 50th time the two have played on the hardwood with the Orange owning a 33-16 all-time advantage. Syracuse has won 12 of the last 13 meetings with West Virginia’s only victory during that span coming in Morgantown in 2008, 81-61.
Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally on ESPNU.
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