West Virginia passed one of its first tests, but the sixth-ranked Mountaineers will get plenty more in the near future.
That includes Saturday’s Big East opener, traveling to face a Seton Hall team off to its best start in 17 seasons.
West Virginia (9-0) began this season as a ranked team for just the third time in school history and has measured up to those expectations with its best start since 2004-05.
The Mountaineers have reached their highest ranking in the AP poll since 1982, and that was before Wednesday night’s 76-66 home victory over No. 15 Mississippi.
Wellington Smith scored 17 of his career-high 19 points in the second half and hit a career-best five 3-pointers to lead West Virginia to its first win over a ranked opponent this season.
“I really didn’t think that I was in a groove or anything,” Smith said. “I just kept shooting open shots. This is my best game so far and I’m going to try to build on it and keep it rolling and hopefully keep this streak going.”
Adding to their strong start won’t be easy. The Mountaineers must navigate a rugged conference slate—four other Big East teams are ranked in the top 15— and have non-conference games against No. 4 Purdue and No. 17 Ohio State.
Over the next four weeks, West Virginia will face teams that are currently a combined 89-14, including a home matchup with No. 5 Syracuse on Jan. 16.
First, the Mountaineers, allowing 58.9 points per game, will try to slow down Jeremy Hazell and a Seton Hall team ranked second in the country in scoring (88.5 ppg).
Hazell was the nation’s 11th-leading scorer last season with 22.7 points per game, including a game-high 29 in a 92-66 home loss to the Mountaineers on Jan. 3. He also had 30 points in the Pirates’ 89-68 loss at West Virginia on Feb. 17, 2008.
The junior guard is averaging 20.0 points this season for Seton Hall (9-1), off to its best start since opening 14-1 in 1992-93.
Hazell has been able to carry less of the scoring burden with the addition of sophomore Herb Pope, a transfer from New Mexico State. Pope is the Pirates’ second-leading scorer with 14.0 points per game and one of four players averaging in double figures.
Two other transfers, Keon Lawrence and Jeff Robinson, made their Seton Hall debuts last Saturday in the team’s only loss, 71-65 to visiting Temple.
Robinson, who spent the last two seasons at Memphis, became eligible at the same time Lawrence was reinstated from a suspension stemming from a two-car accident on Nov. 9. The junior guard, who came over from Missouri, was going the wrong way on a Garden State Parkway express lane, getting charged with DUI and driving with a suspended license.
Lawrence, who averaged 11.0 points in 2007-08 as a starter with Missouri, scored 11 points in his debut but was held to five Tuesday night and missed all four of his field-goal attempts in a 94-56 home victory over Navy.
Robinson has been productive off the bench, totaling 14 points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes.
This is the Pirates’ first game against a ranked opponent this season. They’ve lost five straight and 10 of 11 versus Top 25 teams.
The Mountaineers hold a 13-11 series lead and have won the last four meetings as Da’Sean Butler has averaged 16.3 points. The senior forward leads the team with 16.0 per game this season.