Battle of Top 10 Teams

January 14th, 2010

For those of you lucky enough to have a ticket for Saturday’s West Virginia-Syracuse game, you are going to be in on a little history. It’s the first time in the 40-year existence of the WVU Coliseum that the facility will play host to two Top 10 basketball teams involving West Virginia (No. 2 Penn, No. 3 North Carolina and No. 6 South Carolina all played at the Coliseum in the 1972 NCAA East Regional).

There have been plenty of Top 10 teams come to Morgantown, and the Mountaineers on occasion have been in the Top 10, but never have the two intersected at the same time.

That will happen this weekend when fifth-rated Syracuse (16-1, 3-1) takes on 10th-rated West Virginia (14-2, 4-1) in a noon game that will be televised nationally by ESPN.

Just one other time in school history has Morgantown been the location for two Top 10 basketball teams. That happened on Jan. 16, 1960 at the Field House when third-ranked West Virginia played host to No. 9 Villanova.

The Wildcats, led by longtime coach Al Severance, were bringing an undefeated record into the Field House with wins over Clemson, NC State, Boston College, Duquesne and Temple.

Severance had two big-time players in 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Hubie White and 6-foot-6 senior forward George Raveling.

White, averaging 22 points per game at the time, was considered one of the rising stars in college basketball.

West Virginia already had an established star in Jerry West, the MVP of the 1959 NCAA Final Four and a consensus All-America selection during his junior year.

West had averages of 26.7 points and 16.2 rebounds per game heading into the Villanova game, and Coach Fred Schaus’ Mountaineers had run off a 14-1 record with their only loss coming at third-ranked Cal in the championship game of the Los Angeles Classic.

Ten days prior, West Virginia knocked off St. Louis and Kentucky to claim its second Kentucky Invitational Championship.

A full card of athletic events was scheduled for the Field House leading up to the Villanova game, beginning with the wrestlers taking on California, Pa., at 2 p.m. and then the gymnasts battling defending national champion Penn State at 6 p.m.

The West Virginia-Villanova game was certainly the talk of the town, selling out two weeks in advance, but a lot of the discussion in the Field House that evening was about the job status of longtime Mountaineer football coach Art Lewis.

A month prior, the Athletic Council made a unanimous recommendation to first-year University President Elvis J. Stahr that Lewis’ contract be terminated. Stahr blanched, instead requesting a meeting with Lewis to try iron out the differences.

While word was beginning to filter through the Field House that evening that Lewis was going to be fired, Stahr had made up his mind to ignore the Athletic Council’s recommendation and retain his embattled football coach “by the skin of his teeth.” Those were Stahr’s memorable words during a 17-minute statewide radio address announcing Lewis’ contract renewal the following afternoon.

It turned out that Lewis’ reprieve was only temporary. Two months later, Lewis resigned right before the start of spring football practice to take a scouting job with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

There was drama on the basketball court as well. Although not the first African-American to ever play at the Field House (Penn State’s Jesse Arnelle owns that distinction a few years prior), Villanova’s Raveling was among the first blacks to ever play at the Field House.

At one point in the game, West, while driving to the basket, made contact with Raveling and crashed hard to the ground.

“Jerry brought the ball up the floor and he made a couple of moves to the basket and Raveling kind of took him down pretty hard,” said West’s teammate Willie Akers.

Raveling was naturally concerned for his own well-being with West going down to the ground so hard.

“Silence went over the place,” Raveling once recalled. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Dear God please let this white boy get up off this floor because if he doesn’t I am dead.’ Finally, he came up and he came over and shook my hand and that kind of defused the crowd.”

The game was hard fought and well played on both sides. West played all 40 minutes and scored a game-high 30 points for the Mountaineers.

“Jerry had some night, 30 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists,” said Schaus.

Guard Jim Warren played one of his best games in a supporting role, scoring a season-high 25 points while making several long-distance shots. Warren’s previous high was 17 points in the team’s season-opening win against Tennessee.

Forward Jim Ritchie, who grew up near Philadelphia and knew many of the players on the Wildcat team, contributed 13 points and grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds.

“We’ve been getting some good, strong games from Ritchie and Warren,” remarked Schaus. “And it couldn’t have come at a better time.”

West also drew the assignment of guarding White and he held him to just 6 of 17 shooting and 15 points – seven points below his season’s average.

“Where do you find a greater defensive player than West?” asked Severance afterward. “Our boy was up against the best.”

Twenty six-year-old junior Jimmy Huggard made up the difference, scoring 27 points on 11 of 27 shooting. Raveling also played well, scoring 11 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.

Villanova, despite using only six players, managed to stay close in the first half and actually led 13-11 at one point. In the second half, Schaus switched to a zone defense to stop Huggard’s drives and that helped give the Mountaineer a 68-53 lead with 10 minutes remaining. Villanova managed to keep its deficit under double digits with tip-in baskets inside by Raveling. Afterward, Schaus complained that Raveling could have set up camp underneath the basket.

“We counted once that he stood nine full seconds in the lane without being called for it,” said Schaus.

The Mountaineers held on for an 89-81 victory, their 40th in a row at the Field House. Afterward, Schaus thought Villanova was comparable to defending national champion Cal.

“We had to have a great game from everybody to beat a team like that,” Schaus said. “It’s the only team I’ve seen yet to be in a class with California.”

Schaus was also glad his team had a nine-day break for mid-semester examinations before playing its next game against Pitt. Akers was helped off the floor with a sprained ankle early in the second half and did not return.

“It’s a good thing, too, because it will give time for Willie Akers’ injury to heal,” he said. “Without him we’d be lost.”

Akers did recover and helped West Virginia beat the Panthers 76-66 in Pittsburgh. The Mountaineers finished the season with a 26-5 record and lost to NYU in overtime in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Villanova, too, reached 20 wins and made it to the NIT second round where it lost 73-72 in overtime to Utah State. White led the Wildcats in scoring that season with an average of 19 points per game. Hubie played professionally for San Francisco (1962-63), Philadelphia (1963-64), Miami (1969-70) and Pittsburgh (1970-71) before having his number 14 retired by Villanova in 2001.

Raveling later achieved success as well, coaching at Washington State, Iowa and USC from 1972-94 where he compiled an overall record of 328-279 with six NCAA Tournament appearances. Raveling continues to work as a college basketball commentator for Fox Sports Net.

By John Antonik