The West Virginia-Virginia Tech basketball series reanimates Saturday afternoon, ending an eight-year hiatus that hasn’t dampened the local fervor.
A WVU Coliseum overflow crowd will provide a super-charged environment for the Hokies (7-0), whose blistering start under first-year head coach James Johnson has thus far included only one road game, at UNC-Greensboro. Johnson guessed the scene in Morgantown will be considerably more imposing, something he said his players “have earned” through their early-season win streak.
“It’s going to be a great crowd with people coming to see a good team play,” he said. “We’re undefeated. If we were 3-4 it wouldn’t be sold-out.”
Forgive Johnson’s tunnel vision, but he’s inadvertently overstating the causal impact of his team’s current record and undervaluing the draw of a rivalry that was played 75 times in total and for 35 straight years until 2004, when Virginia Tech left the Big East for the ACC. Tickets for this renewal game sold briskly before the season and it became an official sellout before Virginia Tech upset then-No. 15 Oklahoma State 81-71 last Saturday.
SATURDAY: Virginia Tech (7-0) at West Virginia (3-3)
TIME: 4 p.m. Eastern TELEVISION: ESPN2
RADIO: Coverage on MetroNews affiliates begins at 3 p.m.
But in deference to Johnson (whose unusual hiring beckons deeper review), let’s not undercut a sexy storyline that has Virginia Tech coming to town on the brink of the Top 25. Playing faster than they did under previous coach Seth Greenberg, the Hokies rank third nationally in scoring (86.1 points per game) and 24th in overall field-goal shooting (48.2 percent) and 3-point accuracy (40.4 percent).
Senior point guard Erick Green, after averaging 13.5 points over the past two years, has evolved into an elite scorer this season at 24.9 per game, third-best in the nation. In a foul-shortened 26 minutes against Oklahoma State, he contributed 28 points and seven rebounds, leading Johnson to brag, “If he’s not one of the best point guards in the country, I don’t know what to say.”
“He’s not a guy who’s just going to come down and start taking shots,” Johnson said. “He’s very savvy on the floor. He’s a very efficient player and a very unselfish player.”
A 51-percent shooter with a 31-14 assist-to-turnover ratio, Green has catalyzed an uptempo attack that has scored at least 95 points on three occasions and settled for fewer than 80 points just once.
Said Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins: “My hope is they haven’t played anybody who guards the way we’re going to guard.”
West Virginia point guard Juwan Staten grew familiar with Green — the man he’ll be assigned to check — during their high school days in Virginia, and they also attended some of the same summer camps. Staten, whose 6-foot-1 roster listing appeared dubiously stretched while talking with reporters Friday on the Coliseum floor, said his 6-3 counterpart’s size makes him a “tough cover.”
“He takes his shots in all kind of ways, like a good scorer does,” Staten said. “He shoots free throws, knocks down the midrange, gets to the rim and hits 3s, so I just have to be prepared to guard him at all times.”
Green’s backcourt partner, the 6-5 Robert Brown, averages 13.4 points, and 6-7 forward Jarell Eddie has stretched defenses by getting many of his 17.1 points from t3-point range, making 19-of-36.
“All their guards can shoot and take it to the basket, so we’ve got to play disciplined defense,” said WVU’s Jabarie Hinds. “For us, it all starts with defense. We play a physical game, so it should be interesting.”
With that last comment, Hinds sounded as if he was channeling his coach, who sat a few feet away in the first row of baseline seats, waiting for practice to begin. Huggins suggested Virginia Tech will earn its baskets Saturday, saying “we kind of take people out of what they want to do.”
EXTENDING THE SERIES
After WVU completes the two-year contract with a reciprocal game in Blacksburg next season, Huggins prefers to make the series an annual happening.
“I’m all for it, but I can’t speak for them,” Huggins said. “I don’t understand why we don’t continue to play Pitt, why we don’t continue to play Virginia Tech and all the people that we played all these years and have such great tradition with. When I played here it was every bit as big a rivalry as Pitt was.”
It’s little surprise Huggins recalls the rivalry so fondly: At this same arena in December 1976, he scored his career-best 28 points in a 74-73 Mountaineers win.
The 14,000 fans on hand Saturday might be treated to a game that’s equally close.