Steve Lavin's second Big East opener against Providence as head of the St. John's Red Storm (6-5, 0-0 Big East) won't be quite what many envisioned for the young team's first foray into Big East play.
For one, Coach Lavin is on a modified schedule, occasionally doing recruiting and media appearances, but mostly recuperating from his prostate cancer surgery. He is expected to return in the next month to full action.
For two, three of the none-man recruiting class that Lavin signed are not on campus. One transferred, three were ruled ineligible by the NCAA... but one of those players, Amir Garrett, worked hard to gain his eligibility.
And at 6-5, the Red Storm players and fans were hoping for something more. Coming off of a 66-61 come-from-behind win over Texas-Pan American, it's obvious that there is work and development to be done with this team.
The real measure of what needs to be done - and the mark of how good the mostly-freshman Johnnies can be - comes in Big East play, starting with Providence, who come to Queens for one of only two Big East conference games in Carnesecca Arena.
Preview of the Friars, Keys to the Game, and predictions, below the fold.
And for a reset/ catch-up on the Red Storm, read Storm Warnings.
Mood Music: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Awake (video, opens in new window. Yes, it's dreamlike and mellow.)
Tip Off: 7:00 PM, Eastern
Vs: Providence Friars (11-2, 0-0 Big East)
Location: Carnesecca Arena, Queens, NY
TV: MSG | ESPN3 Radio: Bloomberg 1130 | Sirius: 94 | XM Radio: 190
Opposition blog/ message board: Friarblog | Friar Basketball | Big East Boards - Providence (message board) | Friar Talk (message board)
From the Archives/ Time Machine
St. John's has gone 3-8 against Providence in the past 10 seasons, with all three wins coming since 2007.
Last Year: 1/1/2011, St. John's 67, Providence 65 - Solid defense and good rebounding powered St. John's to a win over the Friars.
And since this is the new freshman class' first conference game...
The 2011 class' first conference game: 1/3/2008, Syracuse beats St. John's 76-70 in the Carrier Dome, a competitive battle that gave hope to the suffering fan base that this recruiting class would bring St. John's back to prominence. (Hope took a few more years to arrive on campus.)
Storm Warnings: Providence
The Friars come to Queens with what should be an intimidating 11-2 record against Division I foes. A closer look reveals that while St. John's has played six teams in the bottom half of Division I, Providence has played nine such teams, feasting on the low-quality teams of the northeast - the dollar slices of basketball. By Pomeroy rankings, their schedule ranks 337th out of 345 teams.
The Friars lost to solid teams - Iowa State and Northern Iowa - and defeated two struggling major conference teams in Boston College and South Carolina, along with Coach Ed Cooley's old Farfield team. It's hard to definitively say what they can do against St. John's - a team that is likely better than Boston College, but worse than Iowa State.
Like St. John's, Providence will be working to stay out of the Big East's cellar with a roster that plays iron man minutes. Four players average over 34 minutes per game. The Friars, despite being fairly small, don't take many shots from outside the arc. And despite their small size, they rebound their offensive misses with solid effort, and even block some shots.
Ed Cooley focuses on field goal defense, and his teams work hard to make shooting difficult with a mix of man-to-man and zone defenses.
Friar Strength: Defensive effort. The Friars this year are far removed from Keno Davis' defensively permissive style. Up and down the roster, they are accountable for defense, rotate decently, and work hard to keep opponents out of the paint. It works; the Friars have allowed 42% shooting from inside the arc, 30% shooting outside the arc, and opponents are taking 38% of their shots from the perimeter.
Friar Strength: Vincent Council's passing. Vincent Council began his Friar career with a bang in the 2009-10 season, passing to a solid roster of finishers and making enough shots to remain a threat. His shooting percentages have dipped with extended time on the court and inferior teams; but his passing remains spectacular, preternatural. Council will find his players with long passes, get the ball into tight spaces, everything one wants from a passing point guard.
Friar Weakness: Depth. At some point, playing 4 players 34+ minutes takes its toll - tiredness, foul trouble, and even with injury. And the Friars haven't established anyone behind those players to eat some minutes. Kadeem Batts has returned for the Friars from a suspension. He may be the player to provide enough scoring to allow Council, Gerard Coleman, and Bryce Cotton to leave the floor for a few extra minutes.
Friar Weakness: Impact big men. Batts' return also gives the Friars a post player who can get some buckets for himself. The team plays wing LaDontae Henton inside, along with some less-aggressive offensive players who focus on rebounding - Ron Giplaye, Brice Kofane, Bilal Dixon, Lee Goldsbrough. Those four players take less than 10% of the team's shots while on the floor, meaning the other players on the court get more defensive attention. And that group combines to allow opponents to get to around 34% of missed shots. Batts' return allows the team to play the rebounding Henton at the wing, and they may be a better rebounding team with that lineup.
The Five Points, or, Keys to the Game
Defend the middle. Gerard Coleman has been an excellent scorer for the Friars, but needs to slash into the lane to score and draw fouls. He needs to be made to take jump shots, as do the other Friars. The zone has to move and rotate to keep driving players out of the center of the lane. When Council or Coleman can break a defense down, they can finish or kick out to sharpshooter Bryce Cotton, who is shooting 43% on three-pointers.
Draw fouls. Facing the Friars' lack of depth - and the Red Storm's lack of offense at times - the Johnnies have to goad the Friars into sending them to the line.
Control the Glass. Providence is good at blocking shots and at grabbing their own misses, but they do not excel at rebounding the other team's misses. There will be second chance opportunities available, and the Johnnies have to convert those chances to win. Keeping the Friars off of the glass will cut down on their chances to win and frustrate their scoring efforts.
Transition Defense. The Friars play a fairly fast pace, and their scorers are best in transition. Vincent Council can find players with passes that seem impossible, and both Coleman and LaDontae Henton are more effective on the break.
Low Turnovers. St. John's is facing an opponent that isn't trying to force turnovers to make their defense work; the Friars don't gamble much. Still, any basketball player is happy to run off in transition if the ball is given to him or her, so ballhandling and smart passing has to be a priority for the young team in their first conference game.
Prediction: Vegas should have this one as a toss-up. Let's say the Red Storm are well-prepared and excited for their first Big East conference game, winning 67-66.