By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
West Virginia is going back to Madison Square Garden.
Coach Bob Huggins told MetroNews that the Mountaineers will be playing North Carolina State at the Mecca of New York basketball on Dec. 20 as part of a non-conference schedule that includes a road game at Purdue, three games in the Puerto Rico Tipoff which includes national champion UConn, Juwan Staten’s former school Dayton, an NCAA sensation this year, New Mexico, Texas A&M, Boston College, George Mason and the College of Charleston.
WVU will also play a home game against Virginia Tech and another game at the Coliseum against an unspecified opponent as part of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.
When in the Big East, of course, WVU had a yearly presence in New York. In fact, its last game in Madison Square Garden was a first-round loss in the Big East championship to UConn in which Shabazz Napier, who developed into the star of the national championship team, scored 26 points.
Since that game WVU has played in New York only once, losing to John Beilein’s Michigan team last season in Brooklyn.
“We have a need to have a presence there,” Huggins said. “We have a great alumni base in New York and especially in New Jersey. Our fan base really enjoyed the Big East tournament.”
New York also is a prime recruiting area. The Mountaineers latest recruit, Tarik Phillip, is from Brooklyn and such West Virginia players as Kevin Jones, Devin Ebanks, Truck Bryant and Lowes Moore came from the New York metropolitan area.
West Virginia is trying to build itself back into national contention as well find its level in the Big 12 after going 46-46 over the past three seasons.
While Eron Harris, the team’s No. 2 scorer, surprised everyone and transferred out of WVU following last year, All-Big 12 guard Juwan Staten returns to lead the team while the addition of Phillip along with Jonathan Holton and Elijah Macon earning eligibility after sitting out last year is expected to make Huggins team much stronger.
A late-season slide kept WVU from making the NCAA Tournament, having to settle for the NIT, where they lost to Georgetown in the first round.
N.C. State went 22-14 last season, which put them into an NCAA playing game, beating Xavier, 74-59, before losing to Saint Louis in overtime, 83-80. Sophomore forward T.J. Warren was the ACC’s Player of the Year and finished third in the nation in scoring with 24.9 points a game but WVU doesn’t have to worry about him, as he went into the NBA draft. NC State also lost its assist leader, Tyler Lewis, who transferred to Butler.
Four players with starting experience return, along with Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey, and three of the Wolfpack’s recruits ranked among the nation’s top 81 by Rivals.