NEW YORK - Bob Huggins was calling timeouts early and making substitutions from deep on his bench and nothing was working for West Virginia's coach.St. John's was driving and scoring and rebounding at will and Huggins rolled up his sleeves in a huddle and pulled out one last trick.He'd abandon man-to-man defense and opt for the 1-3-1 zone."Nothing else seemed to work," he said Wednesday night. "But when you spend the whole timeout going over where everyone is supposed to be and then three guys are in the 1-3-1 and two of them aren't, they're not really into what you're doing. Know what I mean?"That explanation was perhaps the easiest thing to understand after WVU's 78-62 loss to the Red Storm at Madison Square Garden.Gone is the three-game winning streak and whatever momentum the Mountaineers (15-6, 5-3 Big East) had built and hoped to take into the Carrier Dome for Saturday's 1 p.m. (ESPNU telecast) game against No. 3 Syracuse (21-1, 8-1)."You want to get as far away from this as possible," said WVU forward Kevin Jones, who had his 14th double-double with 26 points and 14 rebounds. "We know we're a better team this and it's hard with a lot of young guys."They have a tendency to get real down on themselves, especially when Coach says certain things. That's the way Coach is. As they get older, they'll figure out the meaning of what he says."Wednesday's game was the first of five remaining games for the Mountaineers against teams in the bottom four in the league standings.They missed a chance to move into a tie for second place in the race for one of the four two-round byes in the Big East Tournament. A loss Saturday could drop them to a tie for seventh in the standings and battling for just a one-round bye.
"You know what I've learned from over 30 years of this? You've got to want to listen," Huggins said. "I think kids today have such a - how do I put this the right way? - they put a lot more value in their ability than what their ability really deserves."Huggins said WVU had bad practices Monday and Tuesday and he recalled one stretch where his team made one shot in 10 minutes. It wasn't much different in the game. The Mountaineers started 3-for-15 and went into halftime 7-for-25.St. John's played zone defense throughout the game and mixed a 1-2-2, 2-3 and 1-3-1 with good success. WVU held the ball a lot, couldn't score on drives, settled for jump shots and had very little success running plays to get good shots against the zone."You've got to get the ball in the middle and you've got to get anybody who can make a play or pass the ball," senior guard Truck Bryant said. "You've got to get the ball in the middle at all times because the wings are extended very high."The Mountaineers hadn't seen a team play a zone as continuously since they lost at Seton Hall on Dec. 28.They'll see nothing but a 2-3 from Syracuse. The Orange - No. 1 in the RPI - lead the league in blocked shots and cause constant consternation with their trademark defense.
They're likely to play without 7-foot center Fab Melo, who has been prevented from playing the past two games. He was averaging 7.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3 blocks per game."I thought he was probably the best shot blocker in the country," Huggins said. "When you have that kind of guy around the rim, it's hard, particularly with us. We have a hard time jumping over a wallet."WVU had its moments against the St. John's zone. Players attacked, but St. John's blocked seven shots. Deniz Kilicli scored inside early, but couldn't get it going. He finished 2-for-4 and Huggins pulled him early in the first half and only played Kilicli 21 minutes. Jones rebounded in the zone and had open jumpers early, but he missed most, including a few that rattled around the rim. Dominique Rutledge absorbed Kilicli's minutes and was active in the middle. He was 3-for-5 and finished with six points and seven rebounds in 13 minutes."I probably should have played Dom more minutes," Huggins said. "I thought of all the guys other than K.J., Dom gave us pretty good minutes. I should have played him more."He tried others. Aaron Brown was 0-for-4 and missed both his 3-point attempts. Gary Browne didn't take a shot, but turned the ball over three times and missed all four of his free-throw attempts.
Huggins even played walk-on Paul Herbert Williamson in his first Big East game and freshman Tommie McCune in his third - and the first not against Rutgers. In to shoot against the zone, they were 0-for-3 from 3-point range and McCune actually played with his shorts on backwards.After the game, Huggins said one of the officials (Doug Shows, John Gaffney, Mike Roberts) asked during the game if Huggins has anyone who was willing to play."We didn't prepare to win the game," Jones said. "We weren't ready to play."WVU is 1-9 all-time with nine straight losses against the Orange in the Carrier Dome, which was the site of the team's NCAA Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight victories in 2010. Still, the 2011-12 Mountaineers are now 1-4 on the road with four of the season's five lowest scoring totals and shooting percentages.The Mountaineers average 75 points per game and 46 percent shooting overall, but average 62.8 points and 38.2 percent shooting on the road with a minus-2 assist-turnover ratio."You see it coming and you try to tell them," Huggins said. "You try to show them and try to explain to them how hard this league is. We put up the league standings before last week. Cincinnati was a half-game out of first place. They get beat twice and look where they are now (tied for third, 5-3)."The league's that close, but that didn't seem to affect us that much."Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com