Two years ago to start conference play, St. John's knocked off West Virginia 81-71 in Steve Lavin's first year, quickly flipping from a non-conference season where the Red Storm lost to Fordham, St. Bonaventure, and St. Mary's.
One year ago, the Johnnies took out Providence 91-67 to start Big East play, with Maurice Harkless serving notice that he was one of the nation's top freshmen.
Tomorrow, conference play begins for St. John's. Can the Storm make it three conference openers in a row? Both Villanova and St. John's come into conference play with young teams, dapper coaches, and an urge to prove that they can get near the top of the league table.
There are legitimate concerns about the game on both sides.
"We need to take care of the basketball," Wright said to the media. "St. John's is very aggressive defensively and has great athletes that can turn mistakes into points at the other end if you turn it over."
Meanwhile, Phil Greene IV knows that the game will take a new level of concentration to detail and tenacity. "We need to stay with it all 40 minutes," he said on Monday. "We need to finish out plays and possessions. We need to stick with the gameplan."
Villanova, winners in the Garden last year in overtime, welcome St. John's to their smaller home venue, the Pavilion, for the Big East season opener. Both teams hope a disappointing non-conference season's tough lessons pay off with an emergence in Big East play; starting out 1-0 in the league is always sweet. With both teams developing their roster, the game could be close, messy, or both.
Mood music: Underworld, "Mo Move"
Many have stumbled on the last name of Villanova's point guard. I've provided a pronunciation guide for Villanova's most important player, and a few other players your tongue may struggle with.
Ryan Arcidiacono (#15): last name pronounced like "Arch-ee-dee-AH-coh-no", where the ch in "Arch" is like the ch in chair. You can also call him "the 'Nova point guard" or "the most important player on the Wildcats."
Achraf Yacoubou (#24): last name pronounced "Yah-COO-boo". You can also call him "damn, that guy's everywhere"!
Mislav Brzoja (#10): you can call him "what's he doing on the floor? Are we getting blown out?"
Scouting the Red Storm
Note that St. John's has a pair of x-factors who are getting more minutes in point guard Jamal Branch and shooter Marc-Antoine Bourgault. Both add needed aspects to the team. If they can avoid being overwhelmed with Big East play and the ragged style Villanova can induce on opponents, each could be a spark for the team.
The Johnnies also have veterans in Sir`Dominic Pointer, Amir Garrett, Phil Greene, and of course, D`Angelo Harrison, all of whom could show out in Philadelphia. Harrison and Sampson will still take their share of shots, but some player has to emerge on the defensive side, and a third scorer will be desired against the Villanova attack.
Scouting the Wildcats
Both Villanova and St. John's come into conference play with young teams, hoping to come together like their slick suits. Much like St. John's, the Wildcats look to attack aggressively on offense and accelerate the pace. The Wildcats youth has shown in losses to Columbia and overtime losses to LaSalle. But their potential has also flashed in a close win against Saint Joseph's.
On offense, Jay Wright's team loves to take three-pointers and draw fouls.
Ryan Arcidiacono runs the show, dribbling into gaps to create openings. Tony Chennault is the backup ballhandler; he's middling inside the arc (33% on twos) but sparkles outside the arc (43%).
James Bell (42% on threes), Darrun Hilliard (33% on threes), and Achraf Yacoubou (36% on threes) will all spot up for long-distance jumpers in the corner. Each will drive into the paint, with various degrees of success; the team shoots 44% inside the arc, but draws fouls. The Wildcats have shot 362 free throws, fifth-best in the country.
JayVaughn Pinkston, the Bishop Loughlin (Brooklyn) ballplayer and former McDonald's All-American, comes off the bench but leads the team in scoring at 12 points per game. He'll score inside despite being undersized, outside, and will drive to the hoop.
Senior Maurice Sutton makes himself available in the post and is the best scorer inside the arc at 57%; neither he nor Daniel Ochefu stray from the paint. Starting center Mouphtaou Yarou tends to get his shots from putbacks, short jumpers, or from the line.
Defensively, Villanova gives up one of the highest ratios of three-pointers to shots attempted in the nation (42%) as they sag in their zone. The Wildcats will extend pressure and trap out of the zone; Hilliard, Arcidiacono, Chennault, and Yacoubou all can generate steals. The Wildcats do also give up as many foul shots as they draw; they can be taken in transition and do not maintain defensive shape/ balance.
Cast of Characters
St. John's has been one of the best teams at defending without fouling in their mix of zones and man defenses. If Dom Pointer can pressure and funnel the Wildcats to spots in the lane where Chris Obekpa lurks while not sending the Wildcats to the line, the Storm could have a very good defensive night.
The scrap rebounds.
While Villanova may not be a great rebounding team, St. John's has been a poor team on the glass. The Wildcats have the size in Yarou, Sutton, and Ochefu, along with a battler in Yacoubou, to get dirty-work points (and draw fouls) off of misses, and they have shown a willingness to do so. The defensive rebounding - ending possessions - is key to good defense.
The star is born.
The Johnnies have spent the non-conference season mixing and matching lineups, but D`Angelo Harrison and Jakarr Sampson have been constant. Both of them need to carry the team with consistent scoring performances, a star turn. Some fouls drawn against the sometimes over-eager transition defense and aggressive zone of the 'Cats would help put points on the scoresheet.
X-Factor: the star who left the city
JayVaughn Pinkston's size (6'6"/ 240 pounds) and offensive tenacity make him a tough matchup. Do the Red Storm have a player or scheme that can slow him?
Prediction: St. John's has a chance if they play intelligently, force turnovers, and don't give up too much on the glass. We'll go optimistic for this one, with a 68-67 victory for St. John's over Villanova as our prediction.