Listen/ See: The Pixies, Stormy Weather (video link, opens in new window)
Tip Off: 2:00 AM Eastern Time
At: St. Mary's Gaels (1-0)
Location: McKeon Pavilion, Moraga, CA
Opposition blog/ message board: God is a Gael
"They put a lot of weapons on the floor and that's what makes them tough to defend because they stretch your defense. The threat of the 3-point shot forces you to extend and then that makes you vulnerable on the interior. It also creates a lot of seams or gaps and they're effective in terms of dribble penetration and then playmaking with the draw-and-kick basketball game. So it's similar to playing an international team."
- Steve Lavin, pregame press conference
This is the big opening. The unveiling. The Steve Lavin era at St. John's begins tonight (or tomorrow morning, depending on where you are in the United States) with a tilt against the St. Mary's Gaels, who beat Richmond and Villanova on their way to the Sweet Sixteen last year.
So many pundits believe St. John's has a chance to become a contender for the NCAA Tournament, given the youth of the Big East and the Johnnies' experience. On the other side, the Gaels are excited to bring back three-fifths of their sweet-shooting, high-scoring lineup.
A St. John's win tonight would start a wave of positive buzz around the country. Already, Steve Lavin's recruiting efforts have brought national attention. Everything is magnified when it comes from New York.
But what would a loss do? Bring out those who say Steve Lavin can't coach? Those who think St. John's isn't as good as the Big East coaches think?
The Gaels are already favored by 4.5 points, playing in their loud and cozy gym in the hills outside of Oakland/ San Francisco. There is a chance to steal away with a victory. There are ample opportunities to lose. And a loss should not be taken as a setback, with the staff trying to teach the Johnnies to play a different style of basketball. The Gaels have had an official game, against NAIA College of Idaho.
Whatever happens, I'll be awake to watch.
St. Mary's Pluses
Shooting: St. Mary's has shooters all over the floor, and as such, can create great spacing for drives to the hoop. 6-foot point guard Mickey McConnell shot 51% from beyond the arc and 50% inside the line; he is a shooter. Matthew Dellavedova, he of the ugly mouth guard, also shot well from outside (39.8%), though he wasn't an ace inside the arc (37.9%; he took 40% of his shots inside). Clint Steindl also returns and will shoot from outside exclusively. Dellavedova (photo via AP to the right) is recovering from a hamstring injury, and may be limited in his minutes.
The Gaels play off of their shooting very well, getting players open and staying in motion. They get their open shots and get their forwards in position to score. Kind of like Cornell last year.
Defensive Principles: Individually, the Gaels are decent defenders. But they excel in stopping the ball in transition and slow down penetration. At least they did last year with the size of Omar Samhan and Ben Allen; they still have height, and should still be effective at not letting teams run on them.
St. Mary's Minuses
Rebounding (possibly): With the departure of two mainstays at forward and center - the aforementioned Allen and Samhan - it's hard to predict how the Gaels will do down low. The returning starters are not great rebounders, though that might also be because the post players were great at board work. Two transfers are the newcomers at those spots, Kenton Walker II (Creighton) and Rob Jones (San Diego), are big players and were solid rebounders at their previous stops. but they are replacing dominant rebounders, so there is bound to be a decline.
Forcing turnovers: The Gaels prefer to get back on defense and protect the basket. Randy Bennett's defense isn't always sexy, but it's often effective, aiming to force teams to shoot over their tall forwards from 12-17 feet
St. John's Pluses
Making games ugly: At their best, the Red Storm guards and forwards are physical and hard-working, creating contact when they're allowed to. No one wants to see the technically sound Gaels go to the line a lot, but St. John's might force a few more turnovers than one might initially think; and they could use their size to make a difference on the offensive and defensive glass.
Scoring in transition: When St. John's gets out in transition, they can really score and draw fouls.
St. John's Minuses
Scoring in the halfcourt: The team doesn't yet have an established low-post presence. That isn't to say we won't see one come out tonight from the Justins. But as of last year, St. John's was mediocre when they had to score off of their halfcourt sets. And if they got fouled, the St. John's players missed a number of their infrequent free throws.
Defending mobile big men: Against St. Bonaventure, against Fordham, against Cornell. In all three games, a relatively mobile forward found open space to the basket and put up big numbers. It wasn't an individual problem, but a flaw in the defense and slow reactions. Will this be corrected? Will the quick (but skinny) Polee mitigate this problem?
Did You Know? St. Mary's freshman guard Stephen Holt had 9 steals in the Gaels' opening game against the College of Idaho.
Did You Know? St. Mary's is located in Moraga, California, one of the nation's wealthiest towns.
Zagsblog: Lavin Era Set to Begin at St. John’s
Metro NY: Lavin era begins with high expectations
Rush the Court: Ball Reversal: 24 Hours of Hoops Marathon
(I don't know if I agree that St. John's should pound the paint. They didn't have all that much paint presence last year; though a few weeks of practice might have changed that. Especially for the talented Burrell and the baseline driving Brownlee.)
Keys to the Game
Communicate. St. Mary’s could be very unpredictable at this point in the season; they’re working in two forwards, along with a touted freshman with talent. The team could look to go inside first and then shoot when defenders are sagging in. St. John's needs to communicate and keep the moving parts in control.
Show the Forwards They’re in the Big Leagues. The Gaels have height. Meanwhile, St. John’s starting lineup from the exhibition game is fairly small, even with Brownlee’s strength. St. John’s will need all the chances they can get, and can’t give up second shots to a team that can shoot from the outside as well as the Gaels. If St. John’s needs to make the interior players miss a lot of shots.
Stop the 3-Point Shooters. Despite their gaudy stats (and solid performances in the NCAA Tournament) there have been games where McConnell has barely been able to get a shot off, and the Gaels looked inside for their shots. Conveniently, one game where that occurred was last December’s matchup against the Oregon Ducks, where a fellow named Mike Dunlap roamed the sidelines as an assistant. I hear he knows a little bit about basketball. The key may be to keep those shooters off-balance, rushed, never squared up and stepping into their shots; they need to be forced to either give up the ball or take long 2-pointers, if possible. For McConnell, especially -his range is somewhere inside the halfcourt line.
Score. Preferably in transition. There will be room in the halfcourt to get shots off, but St. Mary’s packs the paint very well, forcing 2-point jump shots… which are much less effective than layups and dunks. There are enough shooters on the Gaels that even with a very good defensive performance, St. John’s will need to put up points.
Win the Turnover Battle. At the very least, St. John’s can’t force passes/ drives and lose the ball. They need to preserve every opportunity to score the basket.