Coming off a big victory over its archrival and knowing a date with the Big East leader looms next week, West Virginia can’t afford a letdown against an opponent it has dominated in recent years.
The No. 6 Mountaineers look to extend their winning streak to six while trying for a 10th straight victory over St. John’s on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
In front of a raucous home crowd that had to be chastised at one point by coach Bob Huggins, West Virginia (18-3, 7-2) beat rival and 22nd-ranked Pittsburgh 70-51 on Wednesday.
The victory opened a potentially grueling stretch for the Mountaineers, who after visiting struggling St. John’s (12-9, 2-7) host league leader and second-ranked Villanova on Monday before a rematch at Pittsburgh on Feb. 12.
While West Virginia has a big week ahead, it likely needs to remain focused in what could be perceived as a trap game even though it hasn’t lost to the Red Storm since Jan. 5, 2002.
St. John’s has lost four in a row overall, but it’s played West Virginia tough despite dropping its last four home games in the series. Played at MSG or in Queens, those contests have been decided by an average of 6.0 points.
The Mountaineers needed overtime to beat St. John’s 83-74 in the last meeting at MSG on March 8, 2008. West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler had 18 points and 10 rebounds in that contest, and the 6-foot-7 senior is averaging 19.3 points and 8.7 boards in his last three games versus the Red Storm.
Against Pitt, Butler scored 18, Kevin Jones added 16 and Devin Ebanks pulled down 16 boards as the Mountaineers held the Panthers to 30.2 percent shooting and outrebounded them 45-31.
The Mountaineers received a boost from highly touted 6-9 freshman Deniz Kilicli, who had nine points in seven minutes in his first action after sitting out an NCAA-imposed 20 games for playing on a team in his native Turkey that included a professional player.
Kilicli could be a huge asset for Huggins’ squad once he gets accustomed to playing both ends of the floor.
“I wanted to play him a little more because he scores for us, but there are just so many things he just doesn’t understand on the other end yet,” Huggins said.
If West Virginia is able to continue its dominance against St. John’s, Kilicli could see some extended minutes off the bench. The Mountaineers are averaging 73.3 points on 47.5 percent shooting during their nine-game winning streak over the Red Storm.
St. John’s looks to bounce back after losing 84-72 at Rutgers on Tuesday.
D.J. Kennedy had 27 points with nine rebounds for the Red Storm, whose opponents have shot 50.9 percent and averaged 75.8 points during their four-game skid.
“We’re disappointed, but that’s life when you don’t do what you think you’re capable of doing,” coach Norm Roberts said. “We have to improve enough to get over the hump.”
Kennedy is averaging a team-leading 15.5 points this season but 9.0 in three games against West Virginia.
St. John’s has lost 11 straight to ranked opponents since beating then-No. 7 Notre Dame 71-65 on Jan. 3, 2009.