Yes, St. John's (16-15) has lost 5 straight, stumbling down the stretch with poor play, a suspension to D`Angelo Harrison, and the same offensive struggles that have plagued the team all year. But in the postseason, the records are 0-0, the opponents are new and less familiar, and an inspired team can rise to the top.
| Tip Off: 7:00 PM Eastern
Vs. St. Joseph's Hawks
(18-13, 8-8 Atlantic 10; coach, Phil Martelli)
Hagan Arena (capacity: 4,200)
TV: ESPNU | ESPN3 | Radio: Bloomberg 1130
Announcers: Mike Crispino, Bob Valvano
St. John's earned a trip to the NIT. Head coach Steve Lavin is trying to use the experience to help his team grow.
"It's a milestone when you have a group that's never been there before and never experienced the postseason," he said. "The only way to grow, mature and move down that path is to pick up experience like playing in the Big East Tournament or the NIT. For us it's just another step on the journey to rebuilding our basketball program."
"It will definitely help us," Amir Garrett said about playing in the NIT. "Going into next season, we're going to have a very good team. It will help motivate us that the year before we made it to the postseason, and next year we will look to go further than this."
St. John's draws St. Joseph's in the NIT, an athletic team with a trio of solid big men and a trio of guards looking to wipe the stink of a disappointing season (18-13) of their own.
What happened to the Hawks? We turn to Rumble contributor and our Atlantic-10 consultant, Jaden of Daly Dose of Hoops.
The best explanation I can give: First, the Atlantic 10 turned out to be MUCH stronger and deeper than any of us would have imagined at the start of the year. The arrival of Butler and VCU, and their sudden rise to the top of the league, made it difficult for most of the other programs in the A-10 to compete as well as most had hoped before the season. Second, this St. Joe's team is still very young. In fact, the core of this team will be back again next season, as the Hawks only lose Carl Jones to graduation. Despite three juniors in their regular lineup, St. Joe's still plays like a team looking to get over the hump despite improving as the game goes on.
The get over the hump part is especially apt; outside of an overtime win over the very beatable Notre Dame in Barclays Center, the Hawks' best wins were over Temple and over a young Xavier team - both in January - and again in the A-10 Tournament. They played VCU closely a few days ago, but couldn't win; this is a team looking to prove that better days are ahead.
And that they won't lose in the first round of the NIT two years in a row, despite being the better team on paper. This year, they're 6.5 favorites at home in Hagan Arena.
Mid-Major Madness: Opening Night of the NIT: A Short Preview
Scouting the teams
What they do well:
Block shots. With Chris Obekpa, Sir`Dominic Pointer, and JaKarr Sampson, the Johnnies present an imposing front line that can alter shots and make opponents uncomfortable, blocking just under 11% of opponents' two-pointers in Big East regular season play.
Win the turnover battle. The Red Storm have managed to turn the ball on 17% of their possessions while forcing turnovers on almost 23% of opponent possessions in Big East regular season play.
What they do poorly:
Shoot/ shot selection. In the 18 game Big East season, the Red Storm were the league's worst at shooting from beyond the arc (25%) and from the free throw line (64.5%). The team also shoots a league-low 25% of their shots from beyond the arc yet are 12th in the league at drawing fouls.
That's a toxic combination for scoring hopes - especially against packed-in zones. The Storm also shoot 45% inside the arc, taking an inordinate number of shots in the midrange - a/k/a "the least efficient shot in the game."
Rebound the offensive end. The Johnnies choose to stay off of the offensive glass, preferring to get back on defense; but on a team that struggles to score, grabbing only 30% of that many misses means there are a lot of second chance opportunities going to waste.
Saint Joseph's Hawks
A scouting report from Philadelphia Big Five rival Villanova, thanks to our old blogging homie Chris of VU Hoops (who also informs us that Kanicevic flipped off the Villanova student section this year. Class guy):
St. Joseph's may find itself on the outside looking in of this year's NCAA Tournament while fellow Philly schools Villanova, Temple and LaSalle participate go dancing, but the Hawks are a solid bunch who can pose problems both inside and out for their opponents.
It all starts with the backcourt duo of Carl Jones and Langston Galloway, who lead the team in scoring at 14.5 and 13.7 ppg, respectively. Neither are afraid to hoist it up from deep, with Galloway being the true sniper of the pair at 39% from beyond the arc.
It doesn't get any easier when you get to the Hawks' frontcourt, as both Ronald Roberts (11.2 ppg) and C.J. Aiken (10.6) are capable scorers, and forces on the glass as they combine for nearly 14 rebounds per game.
Aiken adds one more element that St. John's fans will be familiar with, as he averages nearly 3 blocks per game. He will be the closest thing to Chris Obekpa that the Johnnies have seen all year. Add in Halil Kanacevic (8.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg), who can play both inside and out, and you've got a formidable, and big, starting 5.
If there is one weakness for Phil Martelli's team, it is depth, as after Chris Wilson, no other player is averaging more than 10 minutes per game. But Phil Martelli's focus on defense and aggressive play has made them a formidable foe, and garnered them wins over Notre Dame, Temple, and Xavier (twice).
More from Jaden:
Against a St. John's team that is not very adept at guarding (or making shots behind) the three-point line, the tendency of Saint Joseph's to take so many shots from long distance will be a great strength.....
As far as the Hawks' abundance of threes affecting their defense, St. Joe's makes threes at a better rate than they allow them, which becomes an even greater advantage considering the Red Storm's long-range woes with or without Harrison. For the season, the Johnnies are only hitting behind the line at a 27 percent clip, but are just a mere 6-for-51 since Harrison's suspension three weeks ago.
However, Martelli's team cannot handle a constant press, as evidenced by their 17 turnovers against VCU's "Havoc" defense. If St. John's can force a couple of quick mistakes, the Johnnies will be right there with the Hawks throughout the night.
What makes St. Joe's a good defensive team is the mismatches that their frontcourt creates, which is a huge reason why the Hawks only yield 64 points per game on average. Having a player like Ronald Roberts at the 3 when he is, in fact, more of an undersized 4, gives St. Joe's an extra rebounder up front, which will help them attack the glass much stronger and more aggressively than the smaller, more athletic St. John's lineup that will be looking to get out in transition early and often.
Roberts will likely open against JaKarr Sampson, and C.J. Aiken is what Red Storm fans wish Chris Obekpa turns into in the next two years. Only 6-9 and 200 pounds, Aiken's freakishly long wingspan enables him to alter shots like no one else in the Atlantic 10, and his offensive game backs up his defensive capabilities.
Where the Hawks struggle is when they are not as deep as their opponents, something that comes into play against St. John's, who has a stronger bench that can tire St. Joe's out early. Phil Martelli usually plays no more than eight men every night, and six average 29 minutes or more. Sophomore point guard Chris Wilson should be the first option off the bench, but he is the only reserve who plays more than 10 minutes per night.
Steve Lavin's ability to play Amir Garrett, Marc-Antoine Bourgault and even Christian Jones will help him keep St. John's in the game, that is, if they're able to make shots. Other than that, it is a pretty even matchup.
Keys to the Game
Get over the hump early.
Identify threats and defend the three.
Speed them up on offense.
Meaty rebounding battle.
The good version.
Prediction: You know what? I think St. John's has a chance to take back the SJU name. Prediction, 65-63, Johnnies.