As St. John's (8-3) enters its final game before Big East play, we can make more (but not all) conclusions about the developing Red Storm. The identity of the team that is almost entirely comprised of freshmen and sophomores was unknown entering the season, and there are still kinks to be worked out.
Freshmen JaKarr Sampson and Chris Obekpa have dazzled with refined scoring and shot-blocking abilities. Second-year guard D`Angelo Harrison is second in the league in scoring. Supplementary swing men Sir`Dominic Pointer and Amir Garrett have shown flashes of brilliance.
And help is on the way. Transfer guard Jamal Branch is finally eligible to suit up and play for St. John's after sitting out a year following his decision to leave Texas A&M. This should provide Harrison and Phil Greene IV with ball-handling respites, and could even lead to better cohesiveness and facilitation. It will likely take time.
"I'm definitely excited. It's been a full year since I've played now," Branch said on Thursday. "Just watching the team has given me a great experience, and I'm ready to get things started. I just have to go out and give it my all: 110 percent effort."
But Steve Lavin's Johnnies have endured recurring issues on the defensive boards and defending the perimeter. Offensively, St. John's still needs to become more consistent in carrying out its half-court sets, become more efficient, and thus becoming able to set up its full-court pressure.
All in all, an 8-3 record heading into a date with the Big South Conference's UNC-Asheville Bulldogs isn't an undesirable spot. The goal is to be peaking as conference play begins, and St. John's has won six of its last seven.
Before they can look ahead to Villanova (January 2nd), St. John's must first focus on getting the job done at home against UNC-Asheville (4-7). We'll look into the Bulldogs more below, but a slow start to the season shouldn't allow the Red Storm to forget what UNC-Asheville (almost) did to Syracuse as a 16-seed in last year's NCAA Tournament.
In honor of Friday's annual "Ugly Sweater Night" at Carnesecca and the quickly-approaching holidays, we'll pull out one of the classics. Everyone remembers Charlie Brown and that god-forsaken yellow sweater he made cool back in the 60's. It was either this or Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis," but I'll go, well, in the other direction.
Tip Off: 7:30 pm Eastern
Vs. UNC-Asheville Bulldogs (4-7 - Coach: Eddie Biedenbach)
Location: Carnesecca Arena - Queens, NY (capacity: 5,602)
TV: ESPN3 | Radio: Bloomberg 1130
Quote of the Day
"I grew up watching my favorite players Allen Iverson and T.J. Ford and heard those guys talking about how you have to be a lead general at the point guard position. That has stuck with me ever since." - Jamal Branch
(Briefly) Scouting UNC-Asheville
The Bulldogs come into Carnesecca off an impressive 79-73 road win at Northeastern, but the going's been tough for Biedenbach's squad this season. After winning the Big South a year ago, UNC-Asheville challenged itself with a difficult non-conference slate, where they met Tennessee, Providence, NC State, and Ohio State in addition to St. John's on Friday.
UNC-Asheville isn't overly impressive with their speed and plays relatively undersized outside of 6'10'' center D.J. Cunningham. Senior forward Jeremy Atkinson (pictured above) and sophomore guard Keith Hornsby (son of musician Bruce Hornsby), each averaging over 13 points per game, are who the Johnnies must look out for.
They tend to take shots early in the shot clock, but don't tend to open the floor with the running game. Though they play an aggressive style, the Bulldogs aren't that effective on the glass (144th nationally). UNC-Asheville is also a rather poor perimeter shooting team, converting only 30% of their threes.
The keys to the game for St. John's are quite familiar to most of their games, as they will look to maximize what they do well against UNC-Asheville. Perhaps tonight will be the night Lavin breaks out the full-court pressure to expose the Bulldogs' lack of speed. Chris Obekpa will look to clog the paint again, seeking to build upon his 20 blocks over the last two games. Offensively, the Johnnies must be aggressive by getting into the paint and looking to take advantage of one-on-one coverage.
And, of course, Lavin will continue to ride his offensive stalwarts - Harrison and Sampson. If St. John's can get any combination of Phil Greene IV, Garrett, and Pointer going on the attack, things could be much easier in this pre-holiday clash.
Prediction: We haven't yet seen St. John's smash an inferior opponent, though they are undefeated at home. The Johnnies are certainly susceptible to the slow start. Expect things to loosen up in the second half when the defensive intensity begins to wear down UNC-Asheville.
St. John's 75, UNC-Asheville 62.