Listen/ See: Black Moon, How Many MC's (classic video, opens in new window)
Tip Off: 9:00 PM, Eastern
Vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Location: Carnesecca Arena, New York, NY
TV: SNY | Radio: Bloomberg 1130 AM | Internet: ESPN3
Opposition blog/ message board: On the Banks | Scarlet Nation (message board)
I don’t think that the concern is the trap game aspect. It’s that Rutgers is on the rise and their athleticism and their quickness and style of play is so unique with the trapping and the switching and this feverish pitch that Mike Rice has this team playing at, makes them a threat to anybody, let alone a team that’s had the struggles that we’ve had, dropping five of six before our game against Duke.
- Steve Lavin, pregame
For the St. John's Red Storm, Rutgers can't be a trap game. With St. John's at 4-5 in the Big East, and the Scarlet Knights nipping at their heels at 3-6 in conference, this is a game St. John's has to win. The Johnnies have to beat every team below them in the standings if they want to break on through to the NCAAs. That's just the path they're on.
For this columnist, last year's Rutgers game is when I knew that the coaching staff was on its last legs. In a matchup of the two most embattled coaches in the Big East, the Red Storm couldn't muster up a game plan to defend one of the poorest shooting teams in the league.
The Scarlet Knights scored like they never had last season in that one game, and that's not hyperbole - they scored 121.7 points per 100 possessions on 59.2% effective field goal shooting (accounting for 3-pointers), their highest numbers of the whole season. Mike Rosario, whose ego is bigger than his collegiate shot is accurate, suddenly looked like a real Big East future "star" instead of the indifferent and inefficient player he had been, dropping a career-high 33 points. Hamady N'Diaye looked like a lock NBA player.
And the Red Storm had no answers. They got run out of the RAC.
Hopefully the players remember that embarrassment - against a weaker team, with a chance to start climbing the ladder to save their old coach's job, they didn't play well. And a year to the day, the Red Storm get the rematch - a Groundhog Day chance to do it better, to get themselves closer to the postseason, and to not let the momentum of the Duke win fade with a loss to a scrappy but less-talented team.
The Red Storm have to play with a purpose and intensity and take their opportunities - unlike the last game at Carnesecca Arena, against Cincinnati.
Defend the home. Beat the local rival. Get to .500 in the conference. All of this needs to happen tonight.
Storm warnings, Strengths and weaknesses of Rutgers, and Keys to the Game, below.
Storm Warnings: Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights play with their coach's trademark intensity. Mike Rice is already famous for his aggressive and intense coaching style - he's almost unhinged on the sidelines at times. His work is getting a lot out of a Scarlet Knight roster that was thought to be too small, too young, and too thin to win in the Big East. on Saturday, they lost by 1 possession to the Pittsburgh Panthers, where Coach Rice used to be an assistant.
The Scarlet Knights have 9 scholarship athletes; few of them are stars. And yet, the team is giving headaches to their Big East opponents. It is similar to how Norm Roberts' early teams at St. John's scrapped and clawed to compete with a decimated roster. Effort goes a long way.
It starts with a tenacious team defense, especially inside the arc; and it continues with careful ballhandling. Unlike previous Scarlet Knight teams, the players take care of the ball, and don't dribble into trouble every third possession - they are giving themselves a chance to compete. And with the recruiting class on the way, the results bode well for the future.
For more on the Scarlet Knights, check out the 5 question Q and A with On the Banks, the Rutgers blog.
Scarlet Knight Strengths + Weaknesses
Strength: Defensive intensity. You know when you've seen a Rutgers game. Relentlessness, tenacity, a crazy-eyed coach glowering on the sidelines. The Knights do a great job with it, playing well despite having only 8 men and some walk-ons available. They force turnovers on 19.7% of opponents' possessions, thanks to ball pressure by guards like Mike Poole. And they're leading the league in two-point defense at 43.1% shooting allowed inside the arc, thanks to the long arms of players like Dane Miller. St. John's will need to come with some aggressiveness to counter their intensity.
Strength: Smart ballhandling. Mike Coburn and James Beatty have really gotten better as ballhandlers. Last year, Rutgers turned the ball over on 21.4% of their possessions in Big East play. This year the percentage is down to 17.8. Malik Boothe, Paris Horne, and others will have to be patient to force turnovers.
Weakness: Defensive fouling. The defense for the Scarlet Knights isn't that bad, despite allowing 108.1 points per 100 possessions. But in defending the interior with vigor, there's a little too much illegal massage action - the free throw rate for opponents is a whopping 47.7%, meaning that for every two shots the other team takes, Rutgers gives them just under a free throw. Gilvydas Biruta is a tough defender, but a fouling culprit; Robert Lumpkins also gets caught violating opponents fairly often, given his time on the floor. Justin Burrell and Justin Brownlee's activity could get the Red Storm a lot of chances to score.
Weakness: Rebounding, everywhere. Any way you look at it, Rutgers is one of the worst rebounding teams in the Big East. The Scarlet Knights only get to 31.8% of their own misses. And they allow other teams to grab their misses (38.1% offensive rebounding for opponents). Only Biruta is a good rebounder, and he picks up enough fouls to leave poorer rebounders like Austin Johnson on the floor, and slimmer wings like Jonathan Mitchell and Dane Miller to pick up the slack. St. John's isn't a great offensive rebounding team, but Burrell and D.J. Kennedy could have second chances to get that ball through the net.
Keys to the Game
Bring Sunday’s Energy. The energy and passion from Sunday's game in the Garden have to translate to Carnesecca. This game counts in the real standings. The Red Storm need to be around .500 to finally dance. The Johnnies need to defend, to run, to be difficult on defense and force miscues.
Get to the Line. The Scarlet Knights are quite willing to foul. St. John's needs to take advantage of their touchiness and get to the free throw line.
Ball Control. The Johnnies need to be safe with the ball, but not too safe - they have to attack opportunities inside. But turnovers will kill their chances to win this matchup.
Hit the Open Shots. The Scarlet Knights chase and trap; like St. John's, they leave open shots on the perimeter. The Red Storm have to take advantage of the Rutgers defense with good ball movement and some jump shooting.
Defend the Perimeter. St. John’s has holes in defending the perimeter, and the Scarlet Knights are all willing to take the outside shot - including their forwards.
Lavin received 400 to 450 congratulatory texts and e-mails after the upset of Duke, including one from Chris Mullin relaying how proud Lou Carnesecca was of the job the staff was doing. But none of that will help against Rutgers (12-9, 3-6) which wants to climb over the Johnnies in the league standings.
Nevertheless, after playing in front of 19,353 at the Garden, it could be a challenge for the Red Storm not to suffer a letdown vs. Rutgers, especially if expected inclement weather leaves a sparse gathering tonight.
"I don't think it's going to be hard for us to find energy amongst ourselves," Boothe said. "The (10) seniors all remember that they beat us last year in a game that we feel like we shouldn't have lost. That's enough motivation to get us going."
Rutgers will be looking to state its case as the pre-eminent local team. The Scarlet Knights already won at Seton Hall and despite their apparent talent deficit, they are exerting enough effort to scare opponents.