St. John's at 6 games in - so far, so good, so defensive

The Red Storm are 4-2 in Big East play, a surprise to some, and exciting to many. The coaching staff has been very good at getting players to buy into their concept, and very good at putting the senior-laden St. John's team in a position to win games, with no excuses for injuries or the team's shooting limitations.

It's early still, so the numbers don't mean as much as they will at the end of the season. But below is a look at the St. John's Red Storm through one-third of their Big East games. I use the Four Factors to frame this tempo-neutral look at the St. John's men's team. The numbers are taken from statsheet.org. Read more, after the jump.

SJU in Big East games (as of 1-18-2011)
Pace
66.0
Offense
BE Rank, Off
Defense
BE Rank, Def
Points/ 100 posessions
101.3
12
101
7
eFG%
48.5%
9
52.7%
13
FTA/FGA
45.2%
4
33.5%
4
OR%
28.3%
14
29.3%
1
TO%
20.7%
13
23.2%
2

 

St. John's is finding ways to win, despite not being a lights-out shooting team... and despite struggling to stop opposing offenses from the field. And all of this against a schedule that was known to be front-loaded with some of the league's toughest teams. It's early yet; what we think we know about this team could fall apart in the coming weeks. But so far, it's the defense that has been impressive.

Defense

Overall, the Red Storm are defending better than last year, and it's created winning results. Despite the grousing about the Red Storm's 3-point defense - which was horrific before conference play - the perimeter defense has actually been middle-of-the-pack (32.8%) in Big East contests. The 2-point shooting percentage of opponents stands at a worrisome 55.3%.

Opponents are still shooting a LOT from outside the arc - 42.3% of their shots, highest in the league. But at those percentages, maybe that's good. Maybe that 2-3 zone the Red Storm have used actually works - as a tool in their defensive arsenal. It forces shots from the outside, and St. John's is defending them well enough (so far).

Note that St. John's opponents took 30.1% of their shots from outside the arc last year, making 35% of those shots. Those same opponents shot 48% inside the arc. Do the Johnnies have the right balance? Can they lower the percentage of made shots inside the arc like last year's team?

The Johnnies are still rebounding the defensive end well - in other words, they're not allowing offensive rebounds (#1 in the conference, in the table above). The added dimension of trapping and ball pressure moves the Red Storm near the top of the conference in turnovers forced per possession (23.2% - an increase from the 18.8% in 2009-10), which helps mitigate the team's turnover issues, discussed below. It also makes an optimal Red Storm game a messy, sloppy affair.

The Red Storm defend without hacking, which gives them a nice ranking in free throw attempts allowed/ field goal attempts (FTA/FGA)... and keeps the team's best players on the court.

Offense

On offense, the team's turnover rate has ballooned from the 15.9% that they enjoyed before conference play to 20.7% of their possessions. That rate is 13th in the Big East, and cuts down on the team's chances to score. Without the turnover-free Georgetown game, St. John's is averaging turnovers on 22.8% of their possessions each game - which can be a real issue with teams like Cincinnati and Louisville on the near horizon. Over the full Big East season, St. John's turned the ball over on 18.3% of their attempts in 2009-2010. Part of the issue could be the point guard switch - not just the increase in Dwight Hardy's turnovers (now at 21.2% of possessions, from 16.1 in league play last year), but in the offensive flow as a whole.

From the field, the Red Storm's offensive efficiency is 9th in the league, a number owing partly to their interiors-only style of play. The Johnnies shoot the fewest three-pointers as a percentage of their shots in the Big East (20.3%). Their two-point shooting percentage of 50.8% is 4th in the conference, but that lack of taken and made threes brings down the team's efficiency. And it hurts them when they want to come back on an opponent, as well. That number is a strong improvement from last year, where St. John's was 14th in offensive efficiency.

And the middling efficiency number is no big matter. St. John's compensates by getting to the free throw line a lot (45.2% FTA/FGA; last year: 31.5%). And the Red Storm lead the Big East in free throw percentage at a sparkling 80.1% - making those trips to the free throw line count. Last year, the Johnnies hit 65% of their "free" throw attempts.

Overall...

So while the defense could be better, and the offense is more opportunistic than it is a finely-tuned machine, St. John's is paying attention to the winning. They'll need to win the games they should win against the bottom 4-5 teams in the conference, win most of their remaining home games, and surprise some team on the road.

The team is coming along nicely, and has forced its will on some good opponents.  The Johnnies will struggle against a team that can really protect the ball or grab offensive boards. The turnover issue could loom large, but it has hardly changed in wins or in losses; the Red Storm's ability to score in the post seems to be a bigger deciding factor.

The Johnnies have done an excellent job of working around their negatives, and seem to be well on their way to a postseason berth.

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