After an errant inbound pass landed in the hands of Juwan Howard Jr. with time to spare, the feel-good story of Steve Lavin's return and his plucky team's come-from-behind win at home over Detroit looked threatened. The gods of bounce would not be so cruel on this Tuesday afternoon, and St. John's finished a 77-74 win.
The win revealed new stars in Chris Obekpa, Phil Greene IV, and Amir Garrett. But also exposed some questions about the St. John's defense, the rebounding, and just who the scoring stars will be on the roster. That's to be expected, the default storyline of a young team.
St. John's kicks off the Charleston Classic during east coast rush hour, with a 5:30 (likely) tip-off against the College of Charleston Cougars - the host team. It's a neutral site tournament, but a road game for the Johnnies, who test their mettle against a strong defensive coach and another veteran mid-major team with future pro talents.
[also see: Charleston Classic preview]
Scouting the College of Charleston
The Charleston Cougars, a Southern Conference school expected to contend with the likes of Davidson for the league title and automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament, are looking to beat their first Big East opponent in their history. Charleston has never faced St. John's. But their court is named for famed coach John Kresse, who left Lou Carnesecca's staff in 1979 to take over at Charleston. Last year's coach, Bobby Cremins, is a Bronx native. The pipeline from New York to the Carolinas remains strong, it seems.
Cremins retired last year, and Charleston lucked into former Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik, who was ousted at Tulsa for "declining ticket sales" despite putting a winning 60% of his games and posting double-digit wins in Conference USA.(There's probably a story there.) Wojcik, an ex-Navy player next to David Robinson, is known as a strong defensive coach.
He knows that he has work to do in molding his team to his liking. The team enjoyed a trip to Canada this summer for extra practice time and game competition, but there is still work to be done. "[The Charleston Classic] will push us in a good way early in the season," he said on the College's website. "And it's better to be tested to find out who we are and where we're going, than to have false sense of who we are."
The other change of note is that star player Antwaine Wiggins graduated from the Cougars. His ability to get shots off the dribble and in transition led Charleston - he scored 16 points per game and added 6 rebounds, taking up 25% of the team's possessions while on the floor.
In 2012-13, squad is led by point guard Andrew Lawrence (21.8% of CofC's possessions per game in 2012, assisted on 32% of his team's shots while on the floor), who played minutes in the Olympics - one of two collegians to do so - for Great Britain. He's a solid floor leader with patience and body control, a good passer, and able to create shots off of the dribble. He may not be better than Ray McCallum, but he has a professional future.
Lawrence has had bad turnover days - 8 against Louisville's pressure last year, 5 against George Mason, 10 vs North Carolina-Greensboro. But otherwise, he fills the stat sheet and finds his teammates in transition in a controlled manner. He shot more three-pointers than two-pointers last year, shooting 34% from beyond the arc and 48% inside, while still drawing fouls.
The team will look to get paint touches with Trent Wiedeman (22.7% of possessions in 2012). Wiedeman shot just under 50% inside the arc, and has mechanical but effective post moves. He's 6'8", 240 pounds, and expects to have an advantage inside. "St. John's, they don't start very big," he said after the opener against Towson, "I think their center is 6'7". So Adjehi [Baru] and me both have a little bit of size advantage."
Adjehi Baru (pronounced UH-jie (rhymes with pie) buh-ROO, per CofC's website) was a top-100 recruit who chose College of Charleston in part because his host family's son was brought in by Cremins. The story is much more detailed, but suffice to say Bobby Cremins invoked The Blind Side to describe Baru's journey from the Ivory Coast to the United States and finding stability. As a player, Baru is energetic and defensively solid at 6'9", 225. He was more of a reluctant scorer last year, taking 17% of the team's possessions, but is a factor in their post defense.
The Cougars have shooting from sophomore Anthony Stitt and junior wing Nori Johnson. Junior College transfer Anthony Thomas provides a long (6'7") defensive presence on the wing.
Charleston has solid rebounders in the wide body Trent Wiedeman and the sophomore, and former top-100 recruit Adjehi Baru. Unlike Detroit, who knew that everyone had to rebound to make the Titans competitive, the Cougars can leave the dirty work to their big men.
St. John's ability to locate their man or the box out was an obvious work in progress against Detroit. The threat of Baru and Wiedeman should keep the Johnnies' forwards awake and aware, and this game will be a lesson in technique and recognition for Obekpa, Christian Jones, and JaKarr Sampson.
That said, Charleston's first game - and last year's results - show a team that allows a high percentage of offensive rebounding. Led by a pair of former Big East players in Bilal Dixon, Towson snagged 14 offensive rebounds - 40% of the available total.
St. John's allowed 17 offensive rebounds in a faster game (the Titans grabbed 35% of possible offensive rebounds), and it's an issue the Red Storm will need to work on.
St. John's vs Charleston: Cast of characters/ Keys to the Game
Christian Jones (pictured) will have a chance to show more of what he can do against a post-centered opponent in Charleston. Both Jones and Obekpa will need to get to the blocks early and establish defensive position, along with using their athleticism to bother shots. If they can be stout defensively, the Cougars will have to take their chances with outside jumpers.
Rebounding on both ends will be key; expect the announcers to call some sequence "a battle." And the ability of Jones to pick-and-pop can draw the big men away from the basket, leaving driving lanes for the other Johnnies.
Interior men Trent Wiedeman and Adjehi Baru have two difficult-to-spell names and solid, mature post games. St. John's could be quicker than both; but when a player gets position and knows what to do with said position, all the quickness in the world can be neutralized.
If Wiedemann and Baru can draw fouls/ score, they will set the tone for Charleston.
Andrew Lawrence can handle himself on the court. How will he fare under St. John's pressure? If he can break the pressure and find shooters, the Cougars will feast on the gaps in the St. John's zone. If the game action takes place on the St. John's side of the court, with Lawrence working hard just to get across the half court line, St. John's has a much better chance of being successful.
D`Angelo Harrison came on late for St. John's against Detroit. Can he start the game with crispness? Can he and Phil Greene IV set the tone early, playing solid defense and imposing their game plan on Charleston? Lawrence is a senior with international experience, but Anthony Stitt and the wing players are younger and less experienced; the pressure of Amir Garrett and Sir`Dominic Pointer will affect them.
The veterans will determine whether the Johnnies can get out in transition.
JaKarr Sampson was eager in the first game, missing his first six shots. But his rangy length is something the College of Charleston rarely has to play against. Sampson's ability to put his length and athleticism to good use could turn the tide in St. John's favor.
Opening game jitters hid the kind of dynamic player the Red Storm staff expect him to be.
Prediction: The Cougars' Experience keeps St. John's out of transition, and the Johnnies fall in a one or two possession game, 71-70.