I was going to start with "an apology to Villanova fans, but for St. John's, here is where rubber meets road, where the team can start to show that they are a force in the league if they're going to show it at all." I was going to talk about how Villanova hasn't seemed like an elite team, how they are middle-of-the-pack, et cetera.
But their losses haven't been bad - a neutral site loss to a Texas team that is good, but maybe not great; a loss to Marquette in Milwaukee; and a tough luck, last-second loss to Louisville, a team that is better than folks think. So in fact... Villanova still has room to surprise, and they have a team with some youth with room to grow.
Villanova coach Jay Wright is in his 8th year at the helm of the Villanova Wildcats. After a scuffling start after moving up from Hofstra, a phone card scandal, and some uninspired play early in his tenure, Wright's teams have been consistent NCAA participants, his recruits (really, since the beginning) have been top shelf, and now he's getting men who fit the name "power forward."
Surprisingly, for a team that is known to be guard oriented, they smartly limit their number of three-point attempts, and get to the line a solid amount (42% as compared to their field goal attempts) where they shoot a sizzling 76%. They're excellent with the ball and good at turning the other team over. The Wildcats have defended well inside the arc, and solidly outside the arc. Coupled with very good rebounding and no pronounced statistical weaknesses, this team has their game clicking.
St. John's is coming off of a loss to Connecticut which, based on the low expectations placed on the game, wasn't terrible. Then again, getting beat by 12 in an ugly game isn't a whole lot to be proud of. The one positive is that St. John's generated a lot of turnovers, and it didn't seem to be simply because of U Conn's laziness (but they could have been stronger with the ball). The Red Storm got to play the game at a controlled pace, and did not allow the Huskies to run it down their throat.
But for St. John's, the factor that most correlates with wins and losses is rebounding. St. John's has been crushed in most of the games where they have allowed the other team to own the offensive glass. Makes sense; the forwards are good, but have not been effective at blocking out active rebounders. The rebounding on the offensive end is a good part of what won the Notre Dame game. Offensive boards mean easier shots, especially for a team not adept at making outside attempts. The injury to Rob Thomas' groin will play a factor; Villanova is not that tall, and if he can play, he will make an impact. The other injury to Malik Boothe will also make an impact, as Quincy Roberts and Paris Horne will have to check an intimidating group of perimeter players who can score inside and out.
The most consistent threats are Reynolds and Dante Cunningham, who takes a LOT of shots. I never knew he was such an offensive force. He also provides some defensive pop to a team normally associated with guard play, blocking shots and picking up steals from the forward position. He's performing well, as does former Lincoln High forward Antonio Pena... though Pena can't seem to stay out of foul trouble. He and Dele Coker should hang out and talk about how the refs won't let them play.
There are the NY-area guards, the Coreys for a new generation, Fisher and Stokes, who intersperse impact games with mediocre clunkers. Stokes sticks mostly to three-point attempts, which he hits at a 44% clip; Fisher has been a very good passer and leans the other way, choosing to put up for jumpers and get to the basket and a good clip. He picks up a decent number of assists as well; Fisher doesn't shoot quite as much as the others but supplements his scoring with almost as many trips to the free throw line as he takes shots.
The injuries mount, even as DJ Kennedy and Paris Horne come into their own. The team has played some ugly, aggressive defense, and has gotten teams to play don to their level. But the offense has stagnated in the recent weeks. Is it because of the competition, or because of point guard Malik Boothe's absence/ Quincy Roberts' play? Hopefully we will see in a week or two when Boothe returns.
As mentioned before, Rob Thomas injured his groin and his status is questionable. His scoring pop will be a help as Justin Burrell and Sean Evans struggle with their games against the top-flight competition. Especially in a game against guards and forwards who can turn St. John's over, extra opportunities will be a path to an upset. Dele Coker is gaining some minutes, and if he gets into games and can block out, that will go a long way to improving St. John's fortunes.
It will be interesting to see if the St. John's backcourt can hang on to the ball against the Wildcats, with Kennedy and Horne pitching in with the ballhandling duties. Kennedy picked up a career-high in assists and is more confident in making plays. Expect him to attack whoever is covering him. But on the other side, can the St. John's guards stay out of foul trouble? The depth is... not deep, with Ty Edmondson being the guard off the bench, and one who is more raw than the others.
Five Points -or- Keys to the Game
Muscle Up. Villanova may not be tall, but they rebound. Everyone has to work the glass hard, from Kennedy and Roberts (who seek out long rebounds) to Burrell and Evans, who struggled on the glass.
Keep Your Lunch Money. It's not just the turnovers that are bothersome for this team. It's the type of turnovers. The turnovers that lead to run-outs and fastbreaks. The turnovers against any kind of pressure where the guards throw the ball to the coaches on the sideline. Coupled with actual forced turnovers, these are many missed opportunities for a team that isn't efficient at converting the chance they have to score. I won't put a target number on it, but if the team could just bring the ball into the frontcourt without breaking their rhythm or handing the ball over, the offense would be much crisper.
Star Turns. The Villanova guards can really light it up when given a chance. And the lanky St. John's guards need to stay in their face and make then stumble and bumble. On offense, Horne and Kennedy are channelling their aggressiveness well. Kennedy needs to be more efficient, but this Red Storm offense is nothing without players attacking and forwards cleaning up the mess.
End to End Evans. I feel that this is a game where Sean Evans' athleticism can really shine. He rebounds, he hustles, he dribbles wildly but doesn't lose the ball... and he gets to the line. The opponents are about the same size or smaller than him, and he has had an up and down set of games since Miami. An aggressive "up" game could be an x-factor against Villanova.
Stop the Ball. Against U Conn, St. John's repeatedly let freshman guard Kemba Walker drive the lane for a layup or a foul. It almost goes without saying but I will say it - that is not good defense. The 'Nova guards will drive the lane in the halfcourt, and the defense as a unit has to be set up to stop that. And off of defensive rebounds, St. John's has to get into better defensive position. Too often, the team has looked confused and does not sprint to protect the basket.
Prediction. I have no idea how this game is going to go. It might be a ragtag turnover-filled affair, or it might be a deliberate, half-court yawner like last year's contest... I'll go with 65-59, Villanova wins at home.