We had a lot of good times this year and we're still having a lot of fun. It has been an up and down season, but we all managed to keep our heads and keep playing. - Moe Harkless
Across the rivers in Jersey, Rutgers' men's basketball program is like a mirror of St. John's. Both programs have struggled in recent years - though Rutgers has few glory years to look back on in basketball. Both programs hired new coaches almost two years ago, savvy coaches with unmistakaby animated sideline demeanors.
Both teams are among the five youngest in men's college basketball, and expect better things next year.
Both compete for the same pool of local recruits, both compete for New York City airtime. Both teams want a win.
In the final game of the Big East regular season, the St. John's Red Storm (13-17, 6-11) travel that long distance to New Brunswick, NJ to face Rutgers on Saturday, March 3rd. The two teams are battling for the 11th position in the Big East Tournament, the difference between playing a 9:00 PM primetime game and playing in the quieter middle-of-afternoon session.
Mood Music: Mobb Deep, The Start of Your Ending (41st Side) (video, opens in new window)
(feeling more ambient/ dreamy? try Grimes, Crystal Ball)
Tip Off: 7:00 PM, Eastern
Vs: Rutgers Scarlet Knights (13-17, 5-12 Big East)
Location: Louis Brown Atheltic Center a.k.a. the Rutgers Atheltic Center a.k.a. the RAC, New Brunswick, NJ
TV: ESPNU | ESPN3 Radio: Bloomberg 1130
Opposition blog/ message board: On the Banks
St. John's is coming off of an 89-69 loss at Pittsburgh where their defense failed them; Moe Harkless injured his ankle, but he should be able to play. Assistant coach Mike Dunlap told the media, "I'll know more tomorrow [about Harkless' availability], but the signs are good."
Rutgers lost to Villanova after battling to within one possession before a missed shot-clock violation kept the ball in Villanova's hands. Each team knows they have better basketball to play, but the opportunities to get on the court shrink with every loss. The Knights and the Storm will both be red and hungry.
And then there's that little matter of the controversial last 10 seconds of the Rutgers/ St. John's game in the Big East Tournament where referees Jim Burr, Tim Higgins, and Earl Walton missed two calls on St. John's Justin Brownlee. Yes, it happened. Yes, it was unfortunate.
Yes, Rutgers fans remember.
The kinder, gentler Rice
Mike Rice loves effort. He loves anger. He wants passion.
He'll do a lot to coax out that effort, but admitted that he feels that he needs to temper his in-your-face approach to get a better performance out of his young team. The performance so far hasn't been bad; it's in line with expectations. There's no evidence that he's lost his team, exactly; for a team this young with so many raw post players, their current record suits them.
Still, his team hasn't responded, and admirably, Rice hasn't turned to throwing players under the bus for their performance; like a true leader, he points the blame at himself.
"I’ve learned if the player turns you off, it’s your fault," Mike Rice told NJ.com's Steve Politi. "My teams at Robert Morris [where Rice previously coached], you could have told them the meanest, nastiest stuff and they would use it as fuel. This team uses it as frustration, and frustration takes away from the most important thing — beating the opponents."
Scouting the Scarlet Knights
Rice's team shows a lot of inconsistency, especially in their defense. The team that held UConn and Pitt to .91 and .63 (in a 62-39 pasting of the Panthers) points per possession in back-to-back games has allowed more than 1.1 points per possession in their last 5 games. Over the course of the season, that would place their defense down with DePaul and Providence (though St. John's defense hasn't been pretty itself).
Much like Villanova, the Knights don't contain the ball well on the perimeter, gamble for steals, and compound their problems by fouling. The defense itself isn't particularly good, especially in defending the three-point shot. There are a lot of traps and helps designed to make ballhandling difficult for the opponent. But Rutgers' defenders get lost at times as they wildly pressure and trap for steals.
The Scarlet Knights ARE third in the conference in turnovers forced per possession - the defensive style works sometimes.
Dane Miller, Mike Poole, and Myles Mack can make defensive plays - Miller with blocks, Mack with steals, and Poole with both. Rutgers struggles to grab defensive rebounds; Miller is the best player on the defensive glass.
Dane Miller can be inconsistent; but his upside is of one of the most athletic players on the wing in the Big East. He can fly, he is quick, he has sinewy power.
On offense, Gilvydas Biruta is a tough inside-outside matchup, but also can drift to the perimeter offensively and fail to make an impact. Meanwhile, the freshman troika of Mack, Jerome Seagears, and Eli Carter can be a streakily good scoring unit. Seagears has had good games as a passer, Carter can be a scoring machine when he finds his stroke, and Myles Mack can be difficult to contain.
Scarlet Knight plus: dynamic guard play. As listed above, Mack/ Seagears/ Carter can go off if unguarded/ unbothered.
Scarlet Knight plus: forcing turnovers. Rutgers can pressure opponents into mistakes.
Scarlet Knight minus: cohesion. The entire team's frenzied style of play sometimes leaves room for freshman mistakes, even from the sophomores and juniors. The Knights can find themselves playing at a wild pace, turning over the ball or jacking up selfish/ bad shots.
Scarlet Knight minus: post play. The Rutgers post players - Kadeem Jack, Austin Johnson, and Gil Biruta - haven't made a lot of impact deep in the paint. Of course, faced with St. John's small front line, they may find themselves with career highs, like PItt's Dante Taylor did on Wednesday.
Five Points/ Keys to the Game
Draw fouls. Against Rutgers, St. John's has to be in attack mode. Rutgers will reach and swipe at opponents, getting out of position. Recently, Rutgers' defense has been a real weakness. So St. John's - a team that struggles to score - has to take advantage with their athelticism and get to the free throw line when Rutgers makes mistakes.
Protect the ball. Phil Greene and his ballhandling help have to be careful yet aggressive against the multiple types of pressure that Rutgers will bring.
Find scorers within the flow of the game. Moe Harkless and D`Angelo Harrison have to put up points; and players like Greene and Amir Garrett have to help out within the flow of the game - meaning that they have to work to get the main men involved before going for theirs. Harkless may struggle to drive against Rutgers, and Harrison will find himself hounded; the entire team has to be aware when they have an opening against Rutgers' high-energy defense.
Deflections and miscues. The Johnnies have to be disruptive and keep players like Eli Carter from getting hot from the outside, and keep Dane Miller from using his elite athleticism to run at the basket.
Rebounding as always. St. John's cannot afford to make Rutgers look like a good rebounding team. The players have to battle, tap, and defend inside the pain to keep Rutgers from getting second chances... and to get second chances themselves.
Prediction: Rutgers will be a tough out, but I think St. John's fights them to an ugly win: 64-60.