Is St. John's playing too aggressively?

College basketball recruits are always attracted to the high-paced offense. College basketball fans love to see big offensive numbers put up; makes the game seem more "exciting". In the quest for excitement, though, St. John's fell short last weekend - and have flirted with danger in many of their games. To discuss this, I borrow from Seth Davis, in his most recent edition of Hoop Thoughts, speaking about a factor in Notre Dame's closer-than-it-should-have-been win over Gonzaga:

Notre Dame unnecessarily frittered away a big lead in its win over Gonzaga by becoming too conservative on offense. As a general rule, I think coaches are way too inclined to slow things up with a big lead. It robs their team of the aggressiveness that got them there in the first place. I don't care about the score or the circumstances, a team shouldn't even think about working time off the clock before the two-minute mark. My CBS colleague Clark Kellogg calls it driving with the parking break on. Doesn't work.

I don't know if it always doesn't work, but the thought is an important one. In basketball, especially on the college level, when should a team and a coaching staff step away from what brought them success in a game? It's smart to look for signs of fatigue from the players - short-armed shots, slow legs. And it's smart to take lower-risk shots (and risk is dependent on the players' skill). But when is it too conservative? More, below>>

 

For pressing teams like St. John's and DePaul who are still learning their systems, the zone press defense (a diagram of the 2-2-1 press) comes with inherent dangers. The extra possessions for an opponent are more chances for a comeback; if the defense isn't forcing steals, the defense has to defend a 2-on-1 break coming at the basket; and shooters can get to their spots instead of fighting through defenders to get a clean look.

Maybe the parking break approach has some merit for these two teams - at least at times?

For St. John's, their defensive problems in the Fordham game was exacerbated by the shots they took. Early offense, little movement shots. Twice, DJ Kennedy got the ball, surveyed the defense, and took the kind of shot that ends up in highlight reels, when it lands.

When it doesn't land, it starts the other team's highlight reel.

Taking shots with 30 seconds left on a 35-second shot clock is almost never a good idea, even if the shooter is 50% from that spot. The shots Kennedy (and others) took would still be available later. The urge to "take it now" led to unbalanced defense and shots for the opponent.

And why give the opponents more time? Especially when they're nipping at the heels of a team that should have beat them by 10 or more?

In defense of this strategy - which most of the armchair coaches around New York have spewed invective at - the new St. John's staff is obviously trying to install a new system and build confidence in their squad to put away games. Steve Lavin wants constant pressure and an aggressive offense - which is what many Red Storm followers hated about Norm Roberts' teams. Fans complained about the passivity at times, the attempts to bleed to clock dry and pull the game out at the end. The team was often so seemingly close except for that one run the other team would make, right?

The new coaching staff is not like that. They want to take the fight to the opponent all game long, the kind of fighting attitude that New Yorkers should really love.

What if the Johnnies weren't so tired, flustered (or whatever went wrong)? What if Justin Brownlee was on the floor late instead of benched with a 5th foul? (He should have sat down when he got his third foul.) What if the team could hit a single of their 11 three-pointers in the second half? The game would have been a win. The win would have begged some questions about the Red Storm defense (the Fordham Rams scored almost 1.14 points per possession), but would have impressed people with the scoring.

Fans have to remember that Lavin wants to build an aggressive team. He doesn't want to take that aggressiveness away from them late, the kind of decision that could let the opponent right back into the contest. It happens in football against the prevent defense all the time. An aggressive offense and defense is a risk. Until the team has highly skilled players, the outcomes will both bring thrills to the spine and bile to the throat. As the staff builds the players' skills and learns who they can trust in pressure situations, they will adjust the approach and personnel to squeeze out some wins.

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