Tip Off: 9:00 PM, Wednesday, March 17
Location: Fed Ex Forum
At: Memphis Tigers (NIT)
TV: ESPN 2
Radio: Bloomberg 1130AM Delayed 10:00 PM
It's an opportunity for the Red Storm to show that they have something good going on, something hot brewing for next year, and to put their talent on display against a good Memphis team from a good mid-major conference, Conference USA.
The Memphis Tigers were a Final Four participant in 1985 along with St. John's, Villanova, and Georgetown, back when they were known as Memphis State. They are a far cry from where they were last year - and really, the last 4 years, where they dominated the Conference USA with a combination of John Calipari's bravado, some impact 4 year players and a few one-and-done stars who were lottery picks in the NBA draft.
This year may be a step down from those heights under new young coach Josh Pastner, but it's understandable; the former coach took the impact recruits the team was counting on to be interior and perimeter presences with him to Kentucky.
The NIT is often unpredictable; some teams don't bring their "A" games, with players down about a season that doesn't end in the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament on CBS. But other teams see the NIT as either a springboard to a better "next year" or simply an opportunity to win more games and highlight their skills.
This game can be a springboard for the Red Storm's 9 juniors, if they play with the fire they have displayed at times this year. The Tigers are certainly as beatable as Connecticut; and they can embarrass St. John's like Connecticut did earlier this year. Can the Red Storm ramp up the intensity and win their NIT opener on the road in Memphis, possibly starting a run that would save Norm Roberts' job?
Oversized center Pierre Henderson-Niles left the team in February, leaving the Tigers a bit thin in the paint. Guys who may have been impact players from the bench like Willie Kemp and Roburt Sallie are asked to make an impact every game. It works on offense, with Duke transfer Elliot Williams running the show with an electric inside-outside game. The Tigers take nearly 40% if their shots from beyond the arc, one of the highest rates in the nation. They shoot well and protect the ball well. They also score and draw fouls off the dribble.
But on defense, the Tigers show some warts, especially on the glass. Part of playing a perimeter-oriented style seems to be not rebounding very well on either end of the floor. The five players who have logged the most time don't feature a dominant defensive rebounder; but expect to see Will Coleman and possibly Angel Garcia in the post to shore up that deficiency. But a team effort from the Houston Cougars helped them win the game, despite some poor shooting.
Wesley Witherspoon is a talented inside-out scorer, but listed at 200 pounds, he has difficulty holding down his spot in the paint. He has good steal numbers for a forward. Next to him, Memphis plays Will Coleman, who doesn't score a lot but is efficient and good on the glass at 260 pounds.
Roburt Sallie and Doneal Mack profile as catch-and-shoot guys. Both take more than half of their shots from beyond the arc; Willie Kemp has an even ratio of shots from inside and outside the arc. Willie Kemp is a solid outside shooter but less reliable inside, he is a ballhawk and has very good assist numbers. DJ Stephens doesn't shoot much. He passes less. But he can draw fouls and block a few shots; I assume he is a bench player counted on for defense and to stay out of the way of the offensive stars.
St. John's Notes
At their best, St. John's gets away with a physical game and doesn't sent the other team to the foul line. And the Red Storm force turnovers in their better defensive games. Unfortunately, when they don't force turnovers, the defensive performance ends up being lackluster - even in wins.
It was pointed out that the Red Storm are running more sets with 5 players on the perimeter to start, with drives into the paint. Between slashing to the hoop and offensive rebounding, the team has to come up with consistent offensive performances. The team showed some pep against Connecticut and Marquette, even as their penchant for scoring droughts showed in the second contest.
In the last two games, Sean Evans played hard, bringing down rebounds after seeming like he was getting fewer minutes in the rotation at the end of the season. Anthony Mason Jr. is playing more like a forward than a guard, which is good- his rebounding has been solid, while his jump shot still hasn't found the range.
As always, the ballhandling is taken care of by Malik Boothe and DJ Kennedy makes plays off the bounce, and with some timely 3-point shots. Omari Lawrence has seen some time, and he gives a different look from the backup guard position, a brawny and aggressive driver. Justin Burrell and Justin Brownlee make impact in the post off the bench. One hopes they bring their "A" game desire for the NIT matchup; Burrell has seen the ball a little less in recent games (and been covered more). Brownlee, meanwhile, needs to use his driving ability and offensive rebounding skills more than he uses his three-point shot.
Keys to the Game
Attack Inside. St. John's needs to attack the Memphis interior. The athleticism should be a good match for the Tigers, and St. John's needs to attack their fairly thin front line relentlessly from the perimeter - make them defend moving targets, not inconsistent jump shooters. The Tigers are sometimes passive defenders, and the team can't play into their hands if they want to win.
Win the Rebounding Battle. And when they attack, a player has to go for the glass - the Tigers do not seem to box out well, and they give up a load of offensive rebounds. Second chance points and fouls drawn will counteract the Tigers' 3-point shooting and free throw attempts.
Get Shots Off. The Red Storm can't get into a faster paced game; if they are, the chances are that they are turning the ball over and losing opportunities to score. The Red Storm have to end their possessions with shot attempts, not forced turnovers.
Defend the Drive and Kick. The Tigers do slash to the hoop, but (as I have seen them) they are good at kicking the ball out for three-point attempts. If the guards can stop penetration and cover their man on the perimeter as an immediate catch-and-shoot threat - that is to say, stay close with them off the ball - the Tigers' offense can be frustrated.
Bring the Effort/ Good Defensive Energy. When the Red Storm are playing hard and playing intelligently, they can be an intense and difficult team to play. They need to bring that every possession, and with every personnel change. They have failed to be consistent in their effort, and they will need it as they go through the gauntlet of good teams in the NIT. They will need to get into position and defend without fouling.