Notes on Connecticut
St. John's travels up to Hartford to face Jim Calhoun's Connecticut Huskies on Wednesday. But Calhoun won't be there; he's now on a medical leave of absence. Sports Illustrated reports that he might be back as soon as Saturday, but he'll definitely miss the St. John's game. This won't be a factor in the upcoming game, not by much; but everyone hopes Calhoun gets better.
As for the game at hand, a win at the XL Center would be impressive, and would really turn around the feel of the season. St. John's has two wins in a row. But the Cincy win ... well, it was some very putrid offense going on there as much as the game featured stellar defensive efforts. And DePaul had some promising moments in the play of Justin Burrell (who was attacking on offense) and Anthony Mason Jr. (who was defending smaller players on D and rebounding).
But what can we take from that? Without Mac Koshwal, DePaul's a very bad, very small, very untalented team. So any talk of an improving Red Storm has to wait until this stretch of games against ranker, talented teams - Connecticut tonight. Villanova on Saturday. Pittsburgh next Thursday.
As always, the Huskies are known for their stellar interior defense and their ability to block shots. Even without Thabeet, the team has cobbled together a number of good shotblockers to intimidate players coming inside. The Huskies play fast, running from end to end off of misses to take advantage of mismatches and their athleticism.
But as I have seen them, they seem much less effective off of opponents' makes; they are worse in slower-paced games, and sometimes struggle to get good shots in the halfcourt. They would rather not take three-point attempts, ranking near the bottom of Division I in 3-point attempts as a percentage of all field goals (19.1%). Defensive stops and athletic ability have gotten them far, but this is clearly not one of the best Connecticut teams of Jim Calhoun's era.
- Quickness: There is quickness up and down the Connecticut roster, starting with sophomore guard Kemba Walker and senior guard Jerome Dyson. They get in the lane, draw fouls, and drive and kick very well. But the forwards are quick and aggressive as well; U Conn is stocked with talent for years.
- Interior Defense: As always, the Huskies are one of the best shot-blocking teams in the nation. Senior Gavin Edwards (who is also an extremely efficient scorer) and freshman Alex Oriakhi swat shots with the help of even taller forwards, Ater Majok and Charles Okwandu.
- Offensive Rebounding: The Huskies are pretty aggressive on the glass, befitting their height and quickness.
- Inconsistent Play: The Huskies aren't turnover prone; but their shot selection, especially by Kemba Walker, is suboptimal at times. Walker struggles to finish in the paint but drives into the teeth of the defense. It's great when he gets fouled, but ineffective when he doesn't. And when he ignores Stanley Robinson - the team's best deep shooter and finisher - the Husky defense stagnates.
- Three-Point Shooting: The team's talent often allows the Huskies to eschew the deep shot - they take 19.1% of their attempts from deep, near the bottom in the country. But when they need it... it's not really there. They shoot 33% on 3-pointers, and could really use a designated bomber from outside to give the guards more room to slash.
- Defensive Rebounding: It seems that no one player has dedicated himself to cleaning up opponents' misses like Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet did. Strange, because opponents are missing a lot of shots; stat-padding rebounds are there for the taking.
St. John's: Pluses
- Scrappy play: St. John's interior defense has shined, and the players are willing to get onto the floor and give up their bodies to prevent easy shots.
- Versatility: Many of the players are similarly-sized, allowing St. John's to switch on defense without creating a lot of immediately favorable matchups for the opposition.
- Better Ballhandling: Unlike in years past, St. John's has a pair of ballhandlers who are generally competent, and some other players who can also bring the ball up on occasion. The passing can be overaggressive and sloppy, but the team is better at protecting the ball - they're turning it over 19.5% of possessions, as opposed to 21.8% of possessions last year.
St. John's: Minuses
- Free Throws: Not that the team gets to the line enough, but when they're at the free throw line, they shoot a number of errant line drives. It's become a topic of postgame conversation, and will lose them a close game at some point this season. Their free throw shooting percentage is near the bottom of Division I - they connect on 62.9% of their unguarded, untimed attempts.
- Lack of Star Power: I am not a big believer in a "star" system, where one player is obviously the offense's focal point. But without a dynamic point guard to make plays and find his teammates on offense, the team does need someone to step up and be the big play performer on a regular basis. Sometimes that player may be DJ Kennedy, sometimes it's Dwight Hardy; but both disappear for portions of games. At some point, this team might want one guy to but pressure on the opposing defense for 30 minutes.
- Mediocrity Not Excellence: While St. John's is competent at numerous aspects of the game, the team is not dominating many aspects of the game - even offensive rebounding, which used to be a Red Storm forte.
More preview information, starting lineups, and team reviews on Johnny Jungle's Calm Before the Storm.
Did you know? St. John's has lost 8 straight to the University of Connecticut, with the last win coming in 2002.
Keys to the Game
Slow Pace. Connecticut loves to run teams into submission by grabbing rebounds and racing up court. Last year, St. John's managed to slow the game down in parts. They need to do that again, especially with a U Conn team that is vulnerable in the halfcourt; they're not bad, but they excel in transition.
Turnover Factor. A U Conn game can get away very quickly in a string of turnovers. The Huskies are aggressive in getting at the ball; St. John's would do themselves a favor by not turning it over, obviously. And generating some miscues from the forwards and the sometimes single-minded guards would be helpful.
Hit Outside Shots. The Huskies are hard to score against inside. St. John's will get some points in the paint (if they're smart) and in transition, but to win this game, St. John's will have to stroke it from the outside. There is a chance that the team will become an incredible interior scoring squad, but past games don't make that concept likely.
Rebound. The Red Storm has to box out and minimize the Huskies' strength on the glass.
Keep them Out of the Paint. St. John's has to keep slashing guards Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson out of the paint. The two guards can draw fouls when they slice through a defense; both are excellent with the ball (if not always at finishing inside). Walker scored 21 points last year off the bench, driving into the lane repeatedly; that can't happen again.