St. John's vs Penn State: Barclays Center Classic preview

John Alber

"We are a work in progress, but the upside is intriguing," head coach Steve Lavin said after a close win over the Bucknell Bison, and this weekend could show some of that upside... or just how much improvement work there is for the St. John's Red Storm.

There are many ways to try and understand the human side of St. John's recent wins, wins that fans have wrung their hands about, wins that felt much too close given the level of competition. The team has struggled badly on offense in the first halves and handled their business in the late stages of the second half with shot blocking and just enough offense to get by.

Are the players not taking the games seriously enough? Are they not prepared? Are the Johnnies struggling with chemistry in the real sense - not that they dislike each other, but they don't intuitively know where to find their teammates with the pass on offense? Is the team not-that-good?

Any way one parses it, the Red Storm have had disappointingly close shaves in Carnesecca Arena. The tendency to let opponents hang around won't work against higher-level talents who compete against the Ohio States and Dukes of the world; these players should have the skill to take advantage of opportunities.

Scouting Penn State

St. John's has a tall task in front of them. It's hard to know how good tonight's opponent, Penn State, really is. The teams have played four opponents in common: Wagner, Bucknell, Monmouth and Longwood. Penn State lost to Bucknell, the team that St. John's came the closest to actually losing to at Carnesecca Arena.

Penn State's offense has been their early strength, behind quick fifth-year point guard Tim Frazier, one of the Big Ten's best. He hands out 7.3 assists per game, slashes into the lane effectively (and shoots 64% inside the arc), and has helped the Nittany Lions to a turnover percentage that's even lower than St. John's on offense (14% of possessions for PSU to just under 16% for SJU).

With their ability to shoot - 38% from beyond the three-point arc on the season - holding down Frazier and snipers D.J. Newbill (41% from the three) and Allen Roberts (44% from the three) will be a priority for Sir`Dominic Pointer.

Big men Donovon Jack and Brandon Taylor will also shoot from beyond the arc - creating a quandary for St. John's defense, which would love to keep big men Orlando Sanchez (2 blocks per game) and Chris Obekpa (nation's best 5.4 blocks per game) laying in wait around the paint, instead of chasing bigs out beyond the arc.

But the game plan won't be exclusively perimeter-oriented. "We still gotta go in the paint, we're not going to live and die by our jump shot," Pat Chambers said on Wednesday. "When we have the opportunity to go strong, we'll go strong."

6'6" Ross Travis has been PSU's best rebounder at over 7 total boards per game. He and D.J. Newbill are effective at crashing the glass.

Scouting St. John's

St. John's has been a far more effective second half team offensively, and Penn State's defense has flaws. The Nittany Lions defend the three-point line solidly and give effort on defense, but they also foul quite a bit. Big men Donovon Jack and Brandon Taylor, both sophomores, commit more than 6 fouls per 40 minutes, pro-rated.

Can St. John's finally eschew the long jump shots and work the ball into the lane, getting the PSU big men in foul trouble?

St. John's will continue to integrate point guard Rysheed Jordan into an attack that has been dependent on the volume shooting of D`Angelo Harrison (19 points per game but 23% on three-pointers this season) and the surprise emergence of Phil Greene IV (11 points per game, 59% on two-point shots, 33% on three-pointers). JaKarr Sampson, the 6'9" wing, has added 12 points per game, but only scored three in the struggle against Longwood.

Prediction

Let's go homerist and say a 64-62 win for St. John's, setting them up for a championship against.... Georgia Tech. (Double prediction!)

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