On Saturday, St. John's tries to break a two-game losing streak against one of the most experienced and defensively tough teams in the Big East, Mick Cronin's Cincinnati Bearcats. The Bearcats are nationally ranked and defensively fearsome, with a roster that has logged a lot of minutes together.The team started 12-0 before a 1-point loss to New Mexico.
Meanwhile, St. John's comes to Cincinnati after a thrilling overtime game that saw a new career high in points from D`Angelo Harrison, but a career low from his running mate Jakarr Sampson of 2 points, matching his collegiate debut. The Johnnies have lost two in a row that they had chances to win; a combination of youth and confidence may have been the culprit.
Today's game is different. Cincinnati looks like a top-four Big East team. Playing at their best, they could be real trouble for St. John's young squad with their defensive grit, rebounding, and shooting.
Previous meetings have generally been hard-fought slugfests, games where the first team close to 60 wins. Last year's game at Cincinnati - a St. John's win - went down to the last dramatic second.
Mick Cronin remembers that game in talking with the Cincinnati Enquirer, where St. John's built a lead in the first half. "We came out flat and got caught sleeping," he said.
Expect the Bearcats to be wide awake this afternoon.
Tip Off: 4:00 PM Eastern
Vs. #14 (AP)/ #15 (Coaches' poll) Cincinnati Bearcats (13-1, 1-0 Big East; coach, Mick Cronin)
Location: Fifth Third Arena, Cincinnati, OH (capacity: 13,176)
TV: ESPNU | ESPN3 Announcing team: Beth Mowins and Tim Welsh Radio: Bloomberg 1130
Scouting the Red Storm
In the first Big East game, D`Angelo Harrison carried the scoring load with help from Phil Greene and Jamal Branch, a three-man backcourt with dynamic energy and confidence. The team struggled when Villanova concentrated their defensive efforts on D`Angelo Harrison.
St. John's isn't perimeter-oriented... or are they? Amir Garrett provided some punch inside the paint at 6'6", but others have to provide balance. The shooting percentages (10/20 from beyond the arc) were a welcome change, as were the fouls drawn. But St. John's, a team that prides itself on defending without fouling, gave up 42 free throw attempts to Villanova.
St. John's will look to a bounce back performance from Jakarr Sampson and headier play late from Phil Greene IV and Branch. The Red Storm rebounding continues to have an effect in games. Coach Lavin told the ESPN announcing crew that his team needed to do a better job of "gang-rebounding" since they do not have a player who is an excellent rebounder.
Scouting the Bearcats
Read: 5 Questions with Bearcats Blog on the Cincinnati defense, stars, and flaws.
In the first year without big forward Yancy Gates, the Bearcats have stepped up the tempo and produced a shot-stifling, shot-blocking defense. The Bearcats are 5th in blocked shots, 8th in field goal percentage allowed, and first in total offensive rebounds. Their 2-point percentage allowed is 3rd in the nation, and they don't allow many threes.
Those are the numbers of a very good defense - one that forces teams to take many contested two-pointers, and defends those two-pointers.
The defense is part of their overall game plan to control the game. They are not looking to force turnovers. They're looking to beat opponents into submission.
"The first 30 minutes we're going to try to wear you out as much as we can," Cashmere Wright said to the media after last weekend's Pittsburgh victory. "The last 10 minutes we want you to be as tired as possible so you can't make those same decisions and free throws and shots that you made at the beginning of the game.
"We just keep pushing and keep grinding. Most teams don't play how we play. Most teams, sooner or later, will get tired, will start making bad decisions and their shots will stop falling."
It's the basketball version of smoking a nemesis out. Or maybe a little taste of the rope-a-dope.
St. John's faces a team of good individual defenders on the perimeter - watch for steals and traps - but excellent hustle defenders in the paint. Cheikh Mbodj, Justin Jackson, and the 7'1" David Nyarsuk block a combined 5 shots per game - just below what Chris Obekpa does himself - while rebounding decently on the defensive end (each is a more notable offensive rebounder).
Cincinnati rebounds almost 43% of their misses, 8th best in the country. St. John's allows opponents to grab 37% of their misses (300th in the country) - and that was against less talented competition. The trio of rebounders listed above will require a lot of attention.
On offense, the main scorers love the romance of the three and the jump shot. Sean Kilpatrick (34%), Cashmere Wright (46%) and JaQuon Parker (42%) are good enough to concentrate on that aspect of the game. The team shares the ball well, with each of those three and wing Titus Rubles assisting on at least 10% of their teammates' shots; the kindergarten rules about sharing are alive in Fifth Third Arena.
Cast of Characters
The matchup against the Bearcats finds the Red Storm playing against an aggressive team that will both slash to the basket AND look to pass the ball to waiting bigs. Early defense - keeping those shots farther from the basket will be key. Also key will be disrupting passes to the inside. Obekpa has been solid at generating steals inside.
What goes up and down and lets you know when he blocks a shot? Justin Jackson runs the floor with purpose and is the highest-energy of the big men. He may not have the prettiest shooting percentage, but his athleticism earns the 6'8" junior 1.5 steals a game, along with over a block per game.
JaKarr has to score.
Jakarr is an integral part of the offense; and with his height and athleticism, he has to find ways to get his shot off. He seemed to struggle against the speed and talent of Villanova, and compounded the issue with some fouls that kept him off of the floor and out of the flow of the game.
Composure and cohesion.
Cincinnati's stated goal is to put pressure on opponents and then crush them in the final ten minutes. St. John's will need to keep their cool and battle through the Bearcat surges. They did it last year. Can they do it again? The composure of Branch and the experience of Sir`Dominic Pointer and Amir Garrett can help the Johnnies spring the upset. D`Angelo Harrison will also need a huge game.
Prediction: Cincinnati's experience and St. John's youth in their second road game in Big East play are a bad combination. Cincinnati 69, St. John's 57.