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St. John's basketball pregame game #16: St. John's at West Virginia Mountaineers

St. John's plays West Virginia University, Thursday January 17, Morgantown, 7pm ET.

West Virginia U IconThe Mountaineers are coached by Bob Huggins, back at his alma mater after his Kansas State year (is that like a post-grad year?) to rehab his post-Cincinnati image. Like any team Huggy Bear coaches, they play that aggressive man-to-man defense. They’re still a good shooting team, and they run some elements of John Bielien’s offense down in Morgantown.

The main scorer is Alex Ruoff, who has been offensively spectacular, with the best eFG% in the country at 69.8%. Joe Alexander has taken to the power forward position, pulling down 6 boards per game. Da’Sean Butler has done the same, especially on the offensive glass. And Darris Nichols has handled the ballhandling with very few turnovers. Three-point shooting center Jamie Smalligan may or may not start; his time has been reduced recently to 4 minutes in the drubbing of Syracuse,and Joe Alexander takes the opening tip (thanks, Kurtsnoggle, for that bit of info).

The Mountaineers get good ball pressure and force turnovers; they play at a similar pace to St. John’s, and they don’t rebound well, but still have only lost to Tennesee and Oklahoma in close games, and to Louisville and Notre Dame in less-close games. At home, they’ve defeated Syracuse with a back country ass-kicking, and Marquette with hot shooting that shows little sign of cooling down.

West Virginia 80's Mountaineer IconProbable Starters (per game statistics)
PG Darris Nichols 10.9 pts, 3.9 reb, 3.6 ast, 37% 3pt, 1.1 stl
SG Alex Ruoff 16.6 pts, 3.3 reb, 3.0 ast, 1.9 stl, 47% 3pt, 68% 2pt, 87% FT
F Joe Alexander 15.9 pts, 6.1 reb, 2.4 ast, 1.7 blk, 83% FT
F Da’Sean Butler 12.4 pts, 5.1 reb, 3.1 fouls, 57% 2pt, 43% 3pt
F Wellington Smith 5.3 pts, 3.8 reb, 1 stl, 1.1 blk, 2.4 fouls in 19.3 minutes

Joe Alexander dunk from bioI hold no fantasy that St. John’s is going to win this one. I think West Virginia might still be one of the more slept on teams in the country, and they can really play. Ruoff should be spoken about in tones previously reserved for JJ Redick or Salim Stoudamire, except he’s actually tall. And Joe Alexander will soon receive a foolish evaluation from some old school NBA scouts remarking how "skilled he is, and how he’s "not the most athletic"—he is pasty-skinned, after all. DraftExpress has him as a role player in the NBA.

Meanwhile, the WVU message boards have "do they still play basketball" mockery, the WVU blogs are dismissive of the easy win, and the Mountaineer nation is consumed with Rich Rodriguez’ file shredding.

Keys to the Game

It’s A New Game and You the Coach Like Avery
. I jack a line from Li'l Wayne’s Upgrade for this one. Coach Norm has to get his team to stop paying attention to their recent struggles, the bad winds swirling this team, and the recent poor performances and letdowns. This is one of those games where a good rousing speech might go a long way; concentrate on being crisp, not indecisive, especially for the freshmen in front of what might be the most hostile crowd they have faced. They have to fight back from deficits and not let each missed opportunity increase their frustration. Frustration leads to pressing, and pressing never works for a baller. Burrell has been fantastic and while he needs to improve his turnaround low block game, his face up game has been tight in the past weeks, with him hitting jump shots out to 18 feet. If he played center, and guys cut to the hoop when defenders came out to defend him…

Crispness. This team has to stop turning the ball over, and they have to work to get into their offense. I expect to see Malik Boothe get some time tonight, and he has to channel the 7 assist performance he had against U Conn in garbage time. Mason Jr. has to be more accurate with his shooting—he can get his shot off against most opponents, he is just taking them off balance right now. The team has to make sure they handle the ball crisply (I’m looking at DJ Kennedy, Tomas, Paris, Mase, and Eugene), defend with the legs and not with the hands (sloppy defensive rotations will not only get the team blown out, it’ll send West Virginia on a parade to the free throw line), and make sure they have the rebounds secure. Fundamentals.

Throw Some D. St. John’s has to keep West Virginia out of their offense and keep them from scoring. A more veteran St. John’s team got beaten 73-46 last year against the same offense, so obviously a lot more defense is needed. I expect to see a good amount of Paris trying to body up Ruoff. The Storm also has to get back on defense, and use their athleticism and height to make the West Virginia shooters work for their offense.

I hope the Red Storm can make this game competitive. Sad that I have to say that. I hold no fantasy that St. John’s will win this one, but when they’re on the court, anything can happen. West Virginia is not deep, and that kind of team walks a tightrope with respect to fouls. St. John's has gotten some good players into foul trouble, but never knows how to attack that weakness. But again, when they lace 'em up, you never know.