By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
There are those who would hold a mirror up to the West Virginia University basketball team and say that the reflection that comes back is that of the St. John’s team that the Mountaineers will be facing tonight in Madison Square Garden, but if it is that way it must be one of those distorted carnival mirrors.
Oh, St. John’s is young, as is West Virginia.
In fact, the Red Storm lists an incredible 10 freshmen on its roster, while WVU finds having seven to be something of a drag on its experience.
And yes, WVU does believe in its freshmen, players like Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne and Aaron Browne and Kevin Noreen and Keaton Miles, but when you turn to the Big East statistics you find out that the top two scoring freshmen in the Big East are St. John’s teammates D’Angelo Harrison and Moe Harkless.
Harrison, after scoring 28 points in an overtime loss to Villanova, which was a career high, lis second among freshmen in scoring at 15.3 a game, while Harkless stands right amove him at 15.6.
Just for comparison’s sake, Hinds is averaging 8.3 for WVU and Browne 6.9, or put together less than both the St. John’s freshmen.
But when you look at the mirror image of St. John’s there are two thing that do not come back in the reflection, things that have led to WVU possessing a 15-5 record and 5-2 in the Big East while St. John’s stands at 8-11 and 2-5.
The first thing is WVU senior Kevin Jones is riding a non-stop express to Big East Player of the Year honors.
Jones is leading the Big East in scoring at 20.7 points a game and rebounding in 11.5.
He has been the driving force as a player and as a leader, the most indispensable player in the conference.
The other image that is missing is that of Steve Lavin, St. John’s head coach, and that is a sad tale, indeed.
Lavin coached UCLA seven seasons, winning 20 or more games the first six and taking the team as far as the Elite Eight before being fired following a 10-19 year in 2002-03. He left coaching to work at ESPN for the next seven years before being named to coach at St. John’s last season.
Everything was right with his world, including a top of the line recruiting class, right up until it was discovered that he was suffered from prostate cancer.
Lavin, 47, underwent seven hours of surgery in October and was pronounced cancer free. What he wasn’t free of was basketball, and he tried to come back and coach, probably too early.
Four games into the season, trying to rally his team against Lehigh, he realized that he was worn out.
He told the Los Angeles Times in an interview that his “gas tank was empty, like I was pumping on the accelerator and there was nothing there.”
He continued trying to coach for three more games before his doctor ordered him away from the sidelines.
“I can still manage the program, attend practices, travel to recruit and text the coaches and players after games — this iPhone is like an athletic office,” he said. “But I can’t be there in the games,” he told The Times.
That left a young St. John’s team like a ship without its captain.
WVU coach Bob Huggins said he didn’t know what effect it would have on a young team, but said he thought it “might have been harder on them if Steve had been there, then wasn’t, then was back again.”
Either way it is hardly an ideal situation, one that leaves this as something of a lost season along with being a losing season.
For West Virginia, however, this becomes a crucial game for directly beyond it the Mountaineers have to go to Syracuse to face the No. 5 Orange on their home court, a team that won its first 20 games before losing.
The Orange have been without their center Fab Melo for the last two games, and it is not known if he will return for Saturday’s game.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.