2013 NIT Round 2: St. John's vs Virginia pregame

Lance King

Wake up early Sunday morning - game starts at 11:00 AM Eastern. Get the coffee and eggs and bagels ready.

Want a side of basketball with your coffee?

St. John's (17-15) has a Sunday morning 11:00 AM tilt with the Virginia Cavaliers on their campus in Virginia. Tony Bennett's Cavaliers are 22-11 on the season and the top seed in St. John's quadrant of the NIT bracket, getting past their first-round opponent, Norfolk State on Tuesday.

Game Information
Tip Off: 11:00 AM Eastern
Vs. Virginia Cavaliers
(22-11, 11-7 Atlantic Coast Conference; coach, Tony Bennett)
John Paul Jones Arena (capacity: 14,593)
TV: ESPN | ESPN3 | Radio: Bloomberg 1130
Announcers: Mike Crispino, Dereck Whittenburg

"They could have very easily been in the NCAA Tournament," Steve Lavin said of the Cavaliers, "when you look at their resume they were probably one of the first four teams out."

The Red Storm will try to start a surge toward the NIT Semifinals and finals in New York City at Madison Square Garden; but the tough defense will be a challenge for the offensively challenged Storm.

Mood Music

For your John Paul Jones arena mood: Led Zeppelin, "Ramble On"(Yes, the arena was named for the sailor/ American Revolutionary War hero, not the Led Zep bassist.)

Scouting Virginia

Upshot: Tough defense; offense struggled against zone in NIT opener; young players are getting minutes

The Cavaliers are led by all-ACC selection Joe Harris (16.7 points/ game) and an organized defensive effort. With their low-possession slowdown style and "pack-line" defense, aimed at making touches and dribble-drive scores inside the paint difficult, the Cavaliers have been good enough to beat Wisconsin on the road and North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Duke at home...

...But have also lost to Delaware at home early in the season, and suffered road losses to the ACC's bottom-table teams, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Florida State, and Clemson.

Harris, a 6'6" wing, leads the Wahoos on the floor. He's a versatile scorer, able to shoot (hitting 43% outside the arc) and use his skill to score at all levels. He may not be the fastest, but he's very effective. Without his scoring, the team struggles, though big man Akil Mitchell is quick off of his feet and can finish in the paint. Harris is effective at the rim with crafty moves and shoots well from outside the arc; off of the dribble, he has been less effective.

As mentioned before, the Cavaliers work to get back on defense and are very effective in keeping teams from scoring in the half court. They're underrated at turning the ball over, and don't foul often. They also don't draw many fouls. They struggle at times on offense, tending to play ugly yet foul-free games with Joe Harris saving the day for stretches.

It works better when the Cavs aren't sloppy... and they were sloppy against Norfolk State in the win to open their NIT. From Streaking the Lawn's recap of the Cavaliers 67-56 win over the Spartans:

Virginia's offensive struggles were keyed by 17 turnovers, 10 in the first half. Passes consistently flew either far out of bounds or into the teeth of the NSU defense, as an exasperated Tony Bennett looked on....

Though UVA played shutdown defense for much of the first half, the game devolved into a free-throw shooting competition in the second, as a second-rate refereeing crew appeared to lose control of the game.... That said, it was UVA's defense that was often caught out of position, especially in transition, against a poor offensive squad. NSU had a FTA/FGA of 53.8%, while UVA's was an absurd 88.1%.

From their official site:

"That wasn't us," senior point guard Jontel Evans said. "We have to come out with more energy and more focus than that. If we come out like that against St. John's, it will be over."

The videotape of the Cavaliers' first-round game may give the Red Storm some ideas about how to stymie Bennett's team. UVa, which primarily faced man-to-man defenses during the regular season, appeared perplexed by Norfolk State's 3-2 zone for long stretches Tuesday night.

"We were very stagnant to start out against that zone," Bennett said. "Too many turnovers, guys looked uncomfortable. We haven't had a team play us quite like that most of the year. In the second half I thought we moved a little better. They played some more man-to-man, but even against their zone we had some more movement, and I thought it helped us."

Say... St. John's plays a zone! Does that mean the Cavaliers will be able to use their mistakes to figure out how to play and move better against a zone... or does that mean St. John's has an honest-to-goodness chance?

Note that Tony Bennett also seems to be using the NIT to see what he has in the younger members of his squad, giving point guard Teven Jones, guard Taylor Barnette, center Mike Tobey, and forward Darion Atkins some run against Norfolk State.

Additionally - they will bother interior passes and force turnovers.

Scouting St. John's

Meanwhile, the Red Storm are feeling good after the team's first win in a month, a buzzer-beater over the St. Joseph's Hawks on Tuesday night in Philadelphia.

Sir`Dominic Pointer saved what was otherwise a lackluster scoring effort from the Johnnies, and saved a team that struggled to stop the three-pointer in the first half, allowing 5/8 shooting.

St. John's was down, 32-26, at the half - and were down 40-28 in the second half. But the Johnnies outscored the Hawks the rest of the way, making shots at the rim impossible to convert. St. John's hit 38% of their shots at the rim; teams generally top 60% shooting on dunks and layups. Chris Obekpa, and a defense that sped the Hawks into hurried shots, was effective.

Described as a "collective win", the Red Storm struggle to find consistent scoring. Still, if the defense can improve on getting out on shooters, the team can be stifling enough to have a chance at a victory. And if Dom Pointer can shoot like he did against St. Joe's, the Storm might have enough offense to take advantage of their defensive talents.

Keys to the Game

Keep Joe Harris and the ball separated.

Joe Harris is the Wahoo's best scorer. When he can't touch the ball, their offense stagnates, and players like Jontel Evans (39% on two-pointers, 1/2 on the season on threes) have to create. Finding ways to make him catch the ball going away from the basket, doubling him in corners, and generally shadowing him to keep passes from reaching his hands would be a good idea. Sir`Dominic Pointer and his length will likely get some time shadowing the scorer.

Find transition opportunities.

There won't be many chances to score in transition. But non-conference opponents have found that St. John's can get out in transition quicker than a hiccup and draw contact on defenders trying to keep pace while backpedaling. Jamal Branch's ability to score in transition and find players is key.

Own the paint.

Chris Obekpa, Amir Garrett, and Christian Jones need to be obstructions in the paint for the Johnnies. The Cavaliers have some size in Mitchell, Evan Nolte, and Mike Tobey; the Cavs will likely try some high-low plays and will get Joe Harris going towards the basket on the baseline with or without the ball.

Mixing balance with swashbuckling speed.

St. John's likes to take their shots early in the shot clock. Virginia will be prepared, but the Johnnies' Jakarr Sampson and Phil Greene IV will still try to shoot in transition. Balance - and identifying good opportunities - will be key.

Prediction: St. John's will get some opportunities, but struggle to keep pace with Joe Harris. Prediction, 65-55, Cavaliers.

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