As if blowing a 16-point second-half lead to the No. 6 team in the country weren't bad enough for St. John's, they got routed, 79-60, today at the Garden by a West Virginia starting five that all played their high school ball in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area. Time was the Red Storm used to attract many of those top players, but not so much anymore.
St. John's (12-10, 2-8 Big East) drew only 6,157 to the Garden on a Saturday afternoon, and as the Mountaineers (19-3, 8-2) took control of the game behind 33 points from Da'Sean Butler of Newark, it seemed there were nearly as many in the crowd rooting for the visitors as for the home team. Butler, Devin Ebanks of Long Island City, Kevin Jones of Mount Vernon, Darryl Bryant of Brooklyn and Wellington Smith of Summit, N.J. all figured out they had a better chance of national success in Morgantown than the Big Apple, and they still could visit the Garden on occasion.
They play for a big-time coach in Bob Huggins, who blistered the paint off the locker room walls at halftime when his team was down 11 points and made the necessary adjustments in the second half, switching to a 1-3-1 zone defense, to get his team back on track. One key stat stood out that defined the difference between to two teams.
St. John's bench outscored West Virginia's reserves, 33-7. In fact, the Red Storm's reserves outscored their own starters, 33-27. You could say Storm leading scorer D.J. Kennedy had an off night with 4 points to skew things, but St. John's coach Norm Roberts used 11 players, got production from backup forwards Justin Burrell and Justin Brownlee but played them only a combined 16 minutes in the second half. To be fair, Burrell fouled out after 21 minutes total in the game.
But Roberts has had a hard time identifying his best players and keeping them on the floor. Maybe its because there are too many mediocre players and not enough standouts, or maybe its because the Red Storm hasn't developed any consistency. Huggins also used 11 players, but his starting five played between 23 to 39 minutes and combined for 68 points. The only subs who got double-figures minutes were Joe Mazzula (16), who spearheaded the defense when the move was made to the 1-3-1, and John Flowers (15).
The Mountaineers know who they are and who to turn to when things aren't going well. Huggins called two plays for Butler to start the second half. He failed to score on both, but Huggins kept riding him.
Asked if Huggins told him to look for his shot at halftime, Butler said, "Yeah, I don't know about threes, but he wanted me to be aggressive. He set up a couple plays for me at the beginning of the second half, but I didn't make my first two. Everything fell in from outside, so, I stuck with that."
Butler said he never came close to shooting 7 for 7 from three-point range before, but he had the hot hand. "Yeah, 100 percent from three, unless I was 2 for 2 or something," Butler said. "I can't give an explanation. I was just making it up. I stepped into shots. If somebody was in front of me, I just shot higher and made adjustments. It was just a matter of playing."
Okay, call it a luxury for Huggins to have a player like Butler, not to mention Ebanks and Jones, all of whom can fill it up. But he did the job of selling them on West Virginia.
Huggins can be rough to play for if you have a thin skin, but his players believe in him and do a good job of executing what he demands. Describing the halftime oratory against St. John's, Butler said, "It was the usual. I was talking to Justin (Burrell) during the game, and he said he heard [Huggins] yelling at us down the hall. He just told us what we needed to do and what would happen if we didn't do it."
And what might Huggins' threats entail? "A lot of running and a lot of sitting for certain people," Butler said. "So, you sit when it's game time, and in practice, you run."
It certainly worked. When Butler was asked if the Red Storm has a clear-cut team identity, he insisted they do. "Yeah, they've got a lot of guys," Butler said. "Paris (Horne) led the team last year when (Anthony) Mason was gone. Justin has been doing very well since his freshman year. So, you've got Paris, Justin, Mason, and D.J. Kennedy is the glue. He does everything they need. They have a lot of players. Then, they have (Dwight) Hardy, who is unbelievable from three (actually, 0 for 5 shooting for zero points today)."
In other words, St. John's has a collection of reasonably talented players with no clear leaders from game to game with the exception of Kennedy. When Burrell was asked about the lack of regular go-to guys, he said, "That's the beauty of our team. Every night it could be somebody else. We don't depend on certain scorers. It's just not working out this year."