The second day in the Port City finds St. John's on the winner's side of the bracket, after a 64-53 victory over the host College of Charleston that was never in doubt. St. John's took care of the ball, forced turnovers, and attacked the basket early in the shot clock when possible to earn the win. The Johnnies worked their way into a matchups with teams that will test them - and boost their RPI for postseason play at the end of the year.
In the nightcap, the Murray State Racers sent the fans home early after holding Auburn to 19 first-half points in a 45-19 evisceration of the SEC team. 8 of those Auburn points came in the final 2:20 of the half. Led by preseason All-American Isaiah Canaan (pronounced like "cannon"), the Racers hope to recapture the magic that led them to 31-2 last season, and a thrilling third-round loss to the Marquette Golden Eagles.
"[Murray State] have just been dominant, they play extremely quick, they space the floor well and they create a lot of problems," Steve Lavin said (as reported by the Murray Ledger). "We know we will have our hands full tomorrow night."
It will be the first meeting between St. John's and Murray State, and it should be a good one, filled with deflections, run outs, feisty fouls, and exciting guard play.
Mood music: T-Rex, The Slider
Tip-Off: 5:30 PM
Scouting Murray State
"It was all business in the locker room, because we expected to win," Isaiah Canaan said to the Murray Ledger. "We prepare hard and prepare to beat bigger teams, and that's what we were able to do tonight."
St. John's will be the Racers' biggest test yet, after defeating a non-Division I school named Brescia, and the Auburn Tigers, who will languish at the bottom of the SEC Conference.
The Racers ended last season ranked 12th in the nation after winning their third straight Ohio Valley Conference title. Murray State brings back just under 60% of their minutes, but return a high-energy forward in Ed Daniel (11.5 ppg/ 7 rpg/ 24% def rebound percentage this season) alongside Canaan. Brandon Garrett (5.5 rpg this season) also returns in the post.
Tight man-to-man defense is the focus for the Racers. Marquette scored 62 points in last year's NCAA Tournament matchup; but despite being one the nation's most efficient teams, they were held to 38% shooting and 27% outside the arc. Murray State's system isn't just good on low-major talent and the Auburns of the world; the Racers are aggressive, stifling, and disruptive.
The Racers lose forward and third-leading scorer Ivan Aska and wing Donte Poole. Up and coming guard Zay Jackson is suspended for the year after a parking lot road rage incident where he ran over two people on foot (video) (Jackson has claimed that one of the victims used racial epithets at him, and... well, he's in a bad spot while waiting for trial.)
Stacy Wilson (19.5 ppg/ 64% 3-pt shooting) takes a slot in the backcourt. He provides some scoring punch from the wing; he can wait on the wing to take a three-point shot or drive to the basket. Rest assured, the Racers have players who can shoot the open shot.
Is running with the Racers the best game plan?
St. John's was great at holding the ball against a team that wanted them to play in the halfcourt. But Murray State's style is higher-energy, aimed at making offensive players feel uncomfortable. On turnovers or changes in possessions, Murray State will look to drive deep into the paint, but they can also be patient and bleed clock.
The patience comes from knowing that they have college basketball's ultimate end-of-shot-clock weapon, Isaiah Canaan. Giving him more chances via sloppy play or bad shot decisions is not going to be the winning game plan for the Johnnies; St. John's offense will help their defense.
A key for St. John's, along with minimizing turnovers, is to generate turnovers in the Racers' backcourt to generate favorable mismatches on the fast break. St. John's will also have to better identify Racer players as they transition from their full court defense to their half court zone.
It's not hard, though, to see this game devolving into a one-upsmanship contest between Canaan and D`Angelo Harrison, two dynamic guards who can score all over the court.
St. John's vs Murray State: Cast of characters/ Keys to the Game
Isaiah Canaan is the well-decorated lead guard for the Racers. At 6'0" and quick, he may have an NBA future. But his high-scoring present is a problem in the now. He's quick, but he can also shoot, and shoot off the dribble. Once he gets hot, it's hard to make the Canaan stop.
Canaan is not immune to the turnover; he can get a little overzealous looking for his shot. Can Sir`Dominic Pointer and Phil Greene check him? Can the matchup zone get the ball out of his hands? And can that zone get the ball out of his hands without opening up shots for the other Racer shooters?
D`Angelo Harrison (21.5 ppg/ 3 steals per game/ 33% of team's shots while on floor) got the start against the College of Charleston. Late in the game, he was a dynamic, creative force.
He needs to bring that game intelligence and swagger early; in the first half of the win over the Cougars, the worst of Harrison was on display. He argued about a call, didn't speed back on defense once, took a number of quick perimeter shots... those mistakes are fine against the College of Charleston, especially when St. John's defense holds them to .81 points per possession.
But the Racers can get their buckets, and St. John's offense will have to be better and more cohesive. D`Angelo Harrison will have chances to draw fouls, but he will need to find other players when his lanes are cut off.
Ed Daniel has that fresh hair - cornrows taken out and puffed up Ben Wallace style, picked out for maximum visibility. You know where Daniel is on the court with his aggressive game. Short for the forward spot, Daniels plays large - he can run with the three-guard lineup, he can rebound, he can even shoot with a little range, and he can defend.
The defense is of greatest concern to St. John's. The team hit jump shots, but was nearly-barren from three (2/10 on the night against Charleston). Their most effective offense was close to the basket. In the two games, teams have slowed the Red Storm by simply slowing them and defending the rim. Daniel (and teammate Garrett), combined with a smart game plan, will slow the Johnnies for stretches.
Daniel's versatility will be tough for the St. John's big men to contend with. If he can make plays on the glass and bother shots at the rim, St. John's is in for a long night. Can Daniel serve up the same interior defense the Red Storm have seen?
So far, the Johnnies have been led by the rebounding prowess of JaKarr Sampson and the scrappy rebound work of Amir Garrett. Faced with forwards who are possibly as quick and hungry as them, how will they fare on the glass?
Though only credited with three blocks, Sampson has done a good job altering shots and making driving lanes difficult. He and Garrett will have their hands full with the Racer forwards.
Prediction: Murray State is a much quicker than the College of Charleston. The team has experience at the right spots, and the battle will be the scoring between D`Angelo Harrison and Isaiah Canaan. If D`Angelo can get others involved and play efficiently, St. John's should win. We haven't seen that yet. 74-67, Murray State.