Red Storm in review - 2011 offense and defense

This is the first of a number of posts that will look back on the St. John's Red Storm's resurgent season in the Big East. Check the site daily for player by player report cards & more.
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Lavin_medium (Getty Images photo: Doug Pensinger)

People had forgotten that St. John's basketball still existed in New York.

Forgotten about the school pride. Forgotten about that New York "city game" pride. Forgotten that there's a little team, once called the Redmen, that used to rep Queens and New York hard.

Not the die-hards; they still debated the merits of the team, clinging to hope despite years of futility.

So order up one Steve Lavin. Free one Dwight Hardy; stir with some schematic changes; and heat up in an egalitarian Big East. And now St. John's name rings out proudly in college basketball, among fans and recruits. The older players are proud of what they see coming from the St. John's program... and most supporters expect even better to come.

This St. John's Red Storm squad finished the season a solid 21-12 overall, going 12-6 in the Big East regular season, and 1-1 in the Big East Tournament. The Johnnies enjoyed their first bye in the league tournament since the league went to 16 teams in 2005.

The Red Storm also enjoyed their first winning season in Big East conference play since 2001-02. And St. John's went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001-2002.

The Johnnies also boasted the Big East's sixth man of the year in Justin Burrell, a finalist for the league's MVP, and a well-deserved most-improved player in the league, Dwight Hardy.

Despite the early concerns about Steve Lavin... he looks like a good pick so far, doesn't he?

It was a great season. Some ask, how much of it was having 10 seniors on the roster? And how much of it was Steve Lavin and his coaching staff's acumen?

It'll be a question that can be debated inconclusively for years. But this year was the Great Leap Forward. It wasn't without flaws; the defense did spectacular things, but took a lot of risks. Ans the season ended on a sour note. Let's look back at what went right and what went wrong for the Red Storm, below the fold.

 

A look at the Red Storm's efficiency margins (EM) (a tempo-neutral look at points scored minus points given up; if it doesn't make an ounce of sense, read the RITG Tempo-Neutral primer then come back! We'll wait for you.) and won-loss record in Big East play, the Red Storm made an obvious leap under Lavin's tutelage.

In conference play, the Johnnies were the Big East's big surprise:

Possessions and Efficiency
YR Team
W
L
PossPG
O Eff
D Eff
EM
Rank, Standings
Rank, EM
EM-W/L
10-11 St. John's
12
6
66
102.2
100.3
1.9
5
8
3
09-10 St. John's
6
12
66
97.8
103.4
-5.6
13
13
0
08-09 St. John's
6
12
67
93.6
105.3
-11.7
13
13
0
07-08 St. John's
5
13
66
89.8
101.9
-12.1
14
15
1
06-07 St. John's
7
9
65
94.8
103.6
-8.8
11
13
2
05-06 St. John's
5
11
65
91.6
100.1
-8.5
13
15
2

The past five years have seen the Johnnies outscored handily by opponents. This year, the Storm finally landed on the positive side of the ledger.

Of course, beating Big East opponents by 1.9 points per possession this past season isn't an indication of a championship caliber team - even with Kennedy uninjured. But it's a heck of a lot better than a losing record. A 6 game swing in the standings? A top 5 finish? Not being in the bottom four, playing a "road" Big East Tournament game in the team's home?

Nicely done, Coach Lavin.

Interestingly, the Johnnies have finished higher in the Big East that their efficiency margins would indicate - that's what the EM-W/L column is for, the team's standings in efficiency margins versus their actual won-loss record. Even under Norm Roberts, they seem to win the games they were capable of winning... and destroyed by the teams they had no chance beating.

That's a sign of a good, well-coached team - one that finds ways of winning close games, even if they are wildly outclassed in others.

Three takeaways from the above table:

  • The offense got much better. Over 100 points per 100 possessions means that a team's scoring is around average. The Red Storm had been a rough team to watch - whatever they were trying to do on offense didn't work for years against Big East opponents.  All the foot stomping and hard work doesn't mean much if the skills don't get better. But did the Red Storm's skills actually get better? Read on, and find out.
  • The defense actually allowed fewer points in conference than they had in previous years. A closer look reveals that the defensive improvement comes as a bit of a surprise as well, given what the team did poorly.
  • Granted, the Big East was a muddle, with 9 teams within 12-6 and 9-9 in conference. But as mentioned above, St. John's efficiency margin should have dumped them to 8th in the league, behind West Virginia, Cincinnati, and Marquette. Those hefty beatings in January affect that number, but the close wins over Pittsburgh, Georgetown, and Providence also play a factor.  
  •  

    I think they call that a "scoring barrage"; it's foreign to us.

    (Getty Images photo: Doug Pensinger)

    For the Red Storm, the insertion of Dwight Hardy - and a game plan designed to keep the ball in his hands for most of the game - was the key.

    Hardy_vs_zags_medium

    Hardy responded with an excellent and efficient season, scoring over 18 points per game. He increased his rate of drawing free throw attempts from 22.6% of field goals attempted in 2009-10 to 41.8%. And Hardy increased his accuracy from inside the arc (from 41.7% to 51.2%), and his accuracy from the free throw line (71.2% to 84.5%).

    But it wasn't just letting the Hardy loose from the bench to Fred Astaire dance on the baselines and snake into the lane. The offense got better because the minutes and shots were allocated to players who could actually make shots, as opposed to those who were perceived to be better defenders in the old system.

    Here, a look at the minutes doled out over the course of the whole season in 2010 and 2011, along with the points per game and the percentage of possessions taken up by each player in the top-8 of the rotation:

    2009-10
    2010-11
    Player
    M/G
    PPG
    Poss%
    Player
    M/G
    PPG
    Poss%
    D.J. Kennedy
    31.4
    15.1
    25.6
    *
    Dwight Hardy
    34.2
    18.3
    25.6
    Paris Horne
    28.1
    9.2
    18.3
    *
    Justin Brownlee
    30.2
    12.3
    22.4
    Malik Boothe
    25.3
    4.9
    15.1
    *
    D.J. Kennedy
    28.7
    10.4
    19.8
    Anthony Mason
    24.7
    7.3
    18.4
    *
    Paris Horne
    28.0
    7.9
    16.4
    Dwight Hardy
    22.2
    10.5
    23.4
    *
    Justin Burrell
    20.9
    6.3
    19.0
    Sean Evans
    21.1
    6.7
    21.0
    *
    Malik Boothe
    18.6
    4.1
    17.1
    Justin Burrell
    19.8
    6.6
    19.3
    *
    Dwayne Polee II
    14.8
    4.4
    17.2
    Justin Brownlee
    18.6
    6.8
    20.1
    *
    Sean Evans
    12.1
    3.6
    17.1

    The pecking order changed. Hardy had played behind the defensive stalwart Paris Horne in 2009-10, but in 2010-11, Hardy played ahead of and alongside Horne. D.J. Kennedy, despite taking up fewer possessions (and shooting less) was efficient while improving his defensive rebounding a tick, and while no longer being the go-to player.

    Justin Brownlee improved his shot selection, actually hitting a respectable percentage of his outside shots - taking fewer of the "Brownlee Shots", defined as the ill-conceived jump shot with no defender in a player's face and 20 seconds left on the clock. It's  the shot that makes coaches and fans cringe, and should be reserved for video games.

    Really, the whole team improved its shot selection. Lavin, noting how his team didn't shoot very well, cut the percentage of three-pointers taken to 24.1% of all shots - one of the lowest rates in the NCAA. Good thing - the Johnnies didn't shoot any better from outside the arc (33.4% in 2010; 33.5% in 2011).

    Comparison table below for 2009-10 (pre-Lavin) and 2010-11 (in the year of the Lavin) of the main tempo-neutral statistics, taken from Kenpom.com:

    2009-10
    2010-11
    Category
    Offense
    Nat'l Rk
    Offense
    Nat'l Rk
    Adj. Efficiency
    106.2
    98
    110.4
    52
    Adj. Tempo
    65.4
    261
    67.3
    136
    eFG%
    47.3
    238
    49.5
    147
    TO %
    18.7
    87
    18.5
    81
    Off Reb %
    35.4
    72
    33.1
    143
    FTA/FGA%
    31.6
    307
    44.2
    38
    3P%
    33.4
    205
    33.5
    207
    2P%
    46.2
    228
    49.3
    106
    FT%
    65.2
    288
    71.0
    116
    3PA/FGA
    29.5
    251
    24.1
    335

    A lot stayed the same.

    Turnover percentage, despite the emphasis on taking care of the ball, remained about even. Offensive rebounding went down a notch (an effect of playing Sean Evans less, perhaps). But those little changes in three-point shot selection and interior scoring - made the difference.

    (Getty Images photo: Nick Laham)Kennedy_vs_duke_medium

    The interior scoring may have been helped by the improvement in spacing and cohesion brought on by the new staff. Gene Keady's comment about the players being close enough that a grenade could kill them all must have been taken to heart. I mean, that'd be a grisly way to die!

    But even with better spacing, the cast of seniors didn't have many players who could get their shots off reliably enough to score points. They didn't suddenly learn how to shoot jump shots; the squad learned to manufacture points.

    When there wasn't a transition opportunity, the Johnnies milked the clock down to the single digits and ran plays to get Dwight Hardy free for an attempt.  Sometimes it was a pick-and-roll with Justin Brownlee, the other player who could credibly get his shot off. Sometimes it was an isolation play or a look to Horne for the jumper.

    The pace didn't speed up drastically - just 2 possessions per game over the season. Still, the team was eager to make plays off of forced turnovers and off of missed shots, using good passing to get the ball up court. Avoiding those scoring droughts and listless halfcourt sets of years past, filled with aimless dribbling, was a goal of the coaching staff.

    Those droughts still happened on occasion.  But the ability to move the ball up court, and to get transition opportunities from the defensive efforts of D.J. Kennedy and Paris Horne, set the pace for an offense that was aggressive in transition.

    That aggression drew fouls. In the table above, see how the Red Storm went from drawing fouls at a ratio of 31.6% of their field goal attempts to drawing fouls on 44.2% of their shots?

    That's a totally different-looking offense. That's going from a jump shooting team that can't hit jump shots to a slashing team... that still can't hit jump shots all that well, but generates points.

    Below, a look at how many free throws the Red Storm drew. And note that those who were taking the free throw attempts were better shooters from the free throw line than the 2009-10 top-8.

    2009-10
    2010-11
    Player
    FTA
    FT%
    Player
    FTA
    FT%
    D.J. Kennedy
    172
    0.756
    *
    Dwight Hardy
    181
    0.845
    Sean Evans
    69
    0.522
    *
    D.J. Kennedy
    135
    0.778
    Malik Boothe
    63
    0.667
    *
    Justin Burrell
    95
    0.611
    Dwight Hardy
    59
    0.712
    *
    Justin Brownlee
    93
    0.677
    Justin Burrell
    55
    0.745
    *
    Paris Horne
    84
    0.619
    Paris Horne
    54
    0.537
    *
    Malik Boothe
    59
    0.712
    Anthony Mason
    37
    0.730
    *
    Sean Evans
    59
    0.593
    Justin Brownlee
    31
    0.742
    *
    Dwayne Polee
    27
    0.630
    Totals
    540
    0.685
       
    733
    0.716

    Overall, the free throw percentage didn't increase drastically - partly because Justin Burrell's touch at the line left him this year, as did Justin Brownlee's.

    But the Red Storm staff allocated minutes to the guy who could shoot and those who could create scoring opportunities. Others' scoring attempts were restricted to what those what players could actually do well. In other words, keeping Burrell aggressive around the basket but not creating, minimizing Evans' dribbles, and cutting down on the non-scorer Boothe's time on the floor.

    By drawing so many more fouls, the Johnnies moved their offense into the range of passable, especially in light of the upticks in scoring from the field... and what they did on defense.

    Pressure busts pipes... and ranked teams.

    Horne_vs_duke_medium (Getty Images photo: Nick Laham)

    The tale of the defense was one of pressure, turnovers, doggedness... and that matchup zone.

    It took a number of games to get that defense working - and for the staff to know what defenses to use with their personnel. Trying to use the matchup zone against St. Mary's left the Gaels open for shots - especially Clint Steindl, who had what was a career day for him (then), like Jon Jaques had for Cornell the year prior. And all year in the zone, the Johnnies had a hard time keeping mediocre teams from rebounding on them.

    But when it was working - as it did against the Drake Bulldogs in the Great Alaska Shootout, and in the second half against Arizona State - it was a sight to behold, with Malik Stith bulldogging opponents, Paris Horne harassing, and D.J. Kennedy playing the middle, looking for bad passes to pick off.

    After the Fordham and St. Bonaventure losses - which featured the worst of the pressure defense, lackluster effort, and bad shooting - the defense really came around. The players bought into the defense, and the staff, more importantly, switched defenses at times to man. It worked against Northwestern in the Holiday Festival, and was a solid change of pace.

    The St. John's defense was an energetic annoyance to opponents. Turnovers didn't always make the defense hum - witness the UCLA game at Pauley Pavilion, where the Red Storm forced the second-highest percentage of turnovers on the season and lost. And St. John's defense was about the same in January, where the Red Storm took some painful, soul-crushing, embarrassingly thorough, and just plain bad losses.

    The Red Storm's forced turnover rate jumped to 24.1% of opponents possessions, 13th in the NCAA. The pressing and trapping out of the zone frustrated opponents and struck like a surprise thunderstorm, crushing elite teams like Duke, the national champion Connecticut Huskies, and more.

    Which is great, because everything else on defense was pretty suspect. Again, this is taken from Kenpom.com, and includes national ranks so you can see just how poor the Red Storm were at most defensive metrics. Remember that there are 344 teams in Division I. (Or is it 345? Always confusing.) The table:

    2009-10
    2010-11
    Category
    Defense
    Nat'l Rk
    D-I Avg
    Defense
    Nat'l Rk
    D-I Avg
    Adj. Efficiency
    92.8
    51
    100.8
    93.9
    44
    101.3
    Adj. Tempo
    65.4
    261
    67.3
    67.3
    136
    66.7
    eFG%
    48.1
    133
    48.8
    50.8
    251
    49.1
    TO%
    20.5
    167
    20.4
    24.2
    13
    20.1
    Def Reb %
    31.0
    95
    32.7
    33.2
    222
    32.3
    FTA/FGA
    34.9
    120
    37.7
    40.2
    230
    37.7
    Components
    3P%
    35.9
    264
    34.2
    37.2
    312
    34.4
    2P%
    45.7
    84
    47.7
    47.6
    168
    47.8
    3PA/FGA
    29.1
    61
    32.6
    40.0
    329
    32.9

    It seems bizarre; the Johnnies defense was solid this year, you may think. Until you turn your memories back to Clint Steindl and the St. Mary's game.

    The percentage of turnovers forced is the best change from last year to this year, and stands almost alone as the one strong suit of the defense.

    Let's give Norm Roberts credit - his defenses had kept teams away from launching three-pointers, which are still scored as more than two-pointers. This season's defense did not funnel opponents inside, and the defense also fouled opponents more frequently, and allowed them to shoot better from the field... when they didn't end a possession with a turnover.

    There were flaws in the defense that were exposed in many games - the three was always available in one corner if the opposing team moved the ball well. But the Red Storm did enough to cover those flaws up. But the Johnnies, when they didn't force turnovers, sure gave up a lot of points.

    The flaw wasn't just in the shooting - teams were able to grab rebounds against the Red Storm all year long, and the Johnnies didn't have enough height and rebounding skill to compete with very tall teams... like Gonzaga.

    The matchup zone defense was an interesting idea. It took advantage of the team's ability to recover, covered for some players who may have been exposed in man-to-man defense (Hardy, Brownlee with his lack of size in the paint). And it encouraged teams to shoot from the perimeter.

    But boy were they ever encouraged.

    Teams simply strafed the Johnnies from the outside, and made a healthy percentage of those shots... but not enough to beat the Red Storm. And to be fair, the scene in Big East play was much better:

    Big East only
    2009-10
    2010-11
    Category 
    Defense
    Conf Rk
    Defense
    Conf Rk
    Efficiency
    103.5
    6
    100.1
    6
    Tempo
    64.5
    12
    65.9
    6
    eFG%
    49.3
    6
    52.1
    14
    TO%
    18.7
    9
    23.4
    1
    Def Reb %
    31.8
    2
    30.3
    2
    FTA/FGA
    36.5
    8
    37.1
    9
    Components
    3P%
    35.4
    12
    37.2
    14
    2P%
    47.7
    7
    49.5
    13
    3PA/FGA
    30.0
    9
    40.7
    16

    The Red Storm found a way to be more stingy about giving up points, and that carried the team to surprising heights, even if opponents, when allowed to shoot, were pretty successful at it.

    The Johnnies still got burned from the outside - and weren't great inside the arc either. But instead of being mediocre at everything but defensive rebounding, the Red Storm were excellent at forcing turnovers as well. And that was enough to make the 6th best defense in the Big East - a pesky annoyance that managed to win games. That pesky annoyance of a defense was enough to keep games close, to surprise the nation's best teams, and to bring back a measure of hope to the long-suffering fans.

    It was a good year.

    Look out for player reviews over the weekend and into next week. They'll be shorter than this, I promise.

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