The annual pre-Christmas cupcake game has arrived for the St. John's Red Storm (5-5) as they welcome Ryan Marks' Texas-Pan American Broncs (2-9) to Carnesecca Arena. The Wednesday night matchup, available online (only) at ESPN3, is the first meeting between St. John's and the Broncs.
The Red Storm are coming off of a hard-fought 56-50 win over Fordham; UTPA dropped a close 61-59 decision to nearby Army, and have stayed in the New York area. The game will be the Johnnies' final tune up before Big East conference play begins with Providence College, next Tuesday on December 27th.
Carnesecca Arena will celebrate the always-festive Ugly Sweater Night in honor of Coach Carnesecca. Coach Lavin is not expected to coach the team as he recovers from prostate cancer surgery (though he has been out recruiting players like Ricardo Gathers). There is no word about whether Amir Garrett will make his debut with the Red Storm. But the UTPA Broncs should provide a relatively beatable warm up for the Red Storm.
Of course, with a six-man roster until further notice, and a team that has struggled with some weak Division I squads, every game can be an adventure. Details and scouting of the team below the fold.
Storm Warnings: UTPA Broncs
The Great West's UTPA Broncs - former home of Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger and of former NBA star Lucious Jackson - have enjoyed 1 winning season in the last ten years. Under Ryan Marks, the Broncs have gone a palindromic 16-61 in three years.
3 of UTPA's 4 wins this season have come against non-Division I programs; the team's only D-I win was a one-possession victory over Texas State at home. UTPA has been held under 40 points by Ohio State and Northwestern.
Texas Pan-American ranks near the bottom in every NCAA category, whether one accounts for tempo/ pace or not. But the Broncs are game, and are willing to use modern basketball's great equalizer, the three-pointer. As you may know, the Red Storm allow a hefty number of three point attempts from opponents (37.4% of opponent attempts, 287th in the nation).
UTPA jacks up nearly 39% of their shots from outside of the arc - in part because they have shooters, and in part because their roster isn't tall enough/ talented enough to make working the ball inside a viable option. St. John's may be working to keep opponents out of the paint, but this is a match made in danger.
Below, a bar chart sorted by UTPA players' points per game, with darker/ redder coloring for how perimeter-oriented each player is - i.e., which players are most likely to be shooting threes when they're on the floor. [Click to embiggen.]
Jared Maree is the dangerous offensive player for the Broncs, scoring 14.8 points per game while taking 30% of the team's shots while on the floor. The 6'3" Maree can stroke the three, hitting just under 38%. But he will drive inside as well.
Teammate Brandon Provost nails 38% of his perimter tries as well, but takes a higher percentage of his shots from outside (59% of his attempts).
Clearly, this isn't a team that will mind hunting for open spaces in the St. John's zone. And they are all willing passers.
But the Broncs aren't accurate from the field, shooting an okay 47% from inside the arc and a 33% from the perimeter. They turn the ball over on 24% of their possessions and don't force many turnovers. And teams rebound very well against them on both ends.
Did You Know? UTPA Coach Ryan Marks writes a column on the adventures of coaching at the bottom of Division I for ESPN the Magazine. Read his most recent piece, on Jared Maree having to play in the paint.
Storm Warnings: St. John's
Red Storm fans should be given pause by the Johnnies' struggles against Fordham. Playing with six scholarship players takes adjustment and a measurement of energy, to be fair. And Tom Pecora's bunch certainly had the game circled on their calendar apps/ software. But at times, the Red Storm looked lost about how to generate offense, especially when they were trying to burn off some clock.
The Red Storm were unable to turn over the Fordham Rams, who normally toss the ball around like kids leave their toys strewn around their basements. That may have been a conscious choice to defend the paint instead of trying to gamble for steals. But that game plan made it hard for the Johnnies to generate easy scores.
Fewer transition shots meant offensive creativity fell to Maurice Harkless, D`Angelo Harrison, and Phil Greene. They shot a combined 33% inside the arc, 23% outside the arc, and drew 6 free throw attempts on 49 shots.
In supporting roles, the rest of the team took 13 shots and shot 1 free throw.
The game against UTPA should be less of a slog for the Johnnies, especially for the long and agile Harkless. It's a chance for the players to shine before conference play, and to adapt their game to having Phil Greene at the point instead of Nurideen Lindsey, who transferred from the program.
UTPA Strengths/ Weaknesses
UTPA Strength: Three-point defense. The Broncs hold opponents to 30.6% shooting from outside the arc. The team held Northwestern to 5 of 22 (22.7%) from outside the arc, and Ohio State to 3 of 13 (23%). D`Angelo Harrison, the Red Storm's main three-point shooter, may not find this to be the game for him to get on track with his perimeter shooting.
UTPA Strength: Defending without fouling. Despite playing from behind, the Broncs only allow an average of 19 free throws per game to their opponents.
UTPA Weakness: Interior defense. Opponents shoot 56% inside the paint against UTPA. The Red Storm prefer to score inside the arc, so this may be a chance for players like God`sgift Achiuwa and Moe Harkless to put up some efficient points.
UTPA Weakness: Turnover margin. No, St. John's turnover margin isn't gorgeous either. But for a team like Texas Pan-American, turning the ball over 16 times per game and forcing only 12 is not a way to win. UTPA has had a positive turnover margin three times - against Army, against Lamar, and against Texas A&M International.
The Five Points: Keys to the Game
Get out on UTPA shooters. St. John's zone allows teams with decent ball movement to generate perimeter shots in the holes in the zone. Those holes have to be small, those open moments need to be fractions of seconds, and the defense has to react quickly to the Broncs' offense. It's not just up to Sir`Dominic Pointer; defense and energy needs to be every players' first concern.
No peeking ahead. Conference play starts in a week's time, but St. John's has to handle the matter at hand and play crisp, focused basketball on both ends. That includes not settling for jumpers. Attacking the basket and trying to draw fouls should be the team's game.
Rebound. UTPA is a small, poor rebounding team, and the Johnnies should be able to limit their opportunities on the glass.
Force miscues. The Red Storm defense has needed to conserve energy. But this is the kind of game where the quick hands of Gift, Moe Harkless, Phil Greene, and Dom Pointer should be able to frustrate the Broncs' ballhandlers.
Let's see the walk-ons. The Johnnies haven't had a comfortable game in almost a month. Putting UTPA away early and giving some time to the walk-ons would be a real gift to the fans in the seats.
Prediction: UTPA could be a little trouble early if they're hitting shots. But the Red Storm should be able to defend them and pull out a win by a solid margin. St. John's wins, 67-53.