In the Big East, each team has 3 home-and-home contests, and the other 13 teams are only faced once. The Red Storm have Cincinnati, West Virginia, and Georgetown. Obviously this schedule wasn’t formed with respect to local rivalries, or Rutgers would be in the home and home set… but we do have Coach Mick Cronin's improving Bearcats. That longstanding rivalry. Both teams are hoping for a shot at the NCAA Tournament through the Big East conference tournament in New York City, because they’re not getting near postseason play any other way (barring an incredible winning streak by either squad).
Cincinnati and St. John’s meet for the second time this coming Wednesday evening. The Red Storm won, 70-58, behind 17 points from Anthony Mason Jr. and DJ Kennedy’s 13 points and 8 rebounds. And the Free Larry Wright movement, of course. It was a heady time, with hopes of stealing wins against the top tier of the conference table... and instead St. John's spent the rest of the month feeling relegated to the toilet paper pile.
These teams are not the members of the Big East with the pretty free-flowing offenses, or the high octane shooting style, or the dramatic shot blocking defenses. They are much as they were before—under .500 basketball clubs with solid-to-very good defenses, few reliable offensive options, a whole lot of grit and piss and vinegar to their style. The styles lend themselves to ugly, hard-fought battles. But the teams are statistically similar, allowing 48.3% effective field goal percentage on defense, allowing their opponents to shoot too many free throws, with Cincy as the better offensive team (having the bulk of their shot taken by experienced shot-maker Deonta Vaughn).
St. John’s forces more turnovers, especially in their good games; Cincy defends the three-point shot extremely well. Both teams rely on one or two players to take the shots—for the Johnnies, Anthony Mason Jr and Justin Burrell (and Larry Wright when he’s on the floor) and Deonta Vaughn and John Williamson for Cincinnati.
Cincinnati has been able to bring the newer recruits to the Bearcat program along slowly. St. John’s 8 young players, on the other hand, took the hard lumps from most of the top of the Big East conference, being blown out by West Virginia, Georgetown, Pittsburgh and keeping the score close against Louisville. The Red Storm looked like they didn’t belong in the conference, and the younger players’ warts were exposed.
The last three games—against three of the weakest teams in conference—have shown more promise than the Storm had shown against any opponents besides the NEC teams at the season’s beginnings. The difference a month makes, especially with freshmen... Here's a list of the difference in the Red Storm between then and now:
THEN: Anthony Mason Jr. was rounding into shape, and played 26 minutes, scoring 17 points.
NOW: If Mason plays (ankle injury), he’ll be limited.
THEN: Coach Norm Roberts played Jasiulionis and Coker 20 minutes in search of a post player next to Burrell for defense and rebounding.
NOW: Sean Evans has acclimated to starting and playing major minutes in the post, defending mobile forwards and being a tough body, an enforcer-in-training.
THEN: Kennedy played well, with some offense and free throws to round out the scoring. His dribbles/ drives into the paint were an adventure.
NOW: Kennedy has lost confidence in his shot, and has not been able to find his offense. His defense is still decent, but the fact that he has been left open on the wing means that teams know he’s not going to cock back and shoot it. He has less confidence in his drives.
THEN: Lawrence had one of the few good games of his senior year, defending Vaughn physically and getting to the free throw line at a spectacular rate.
NOW: After losing confidence in his game and hearing the home boos, Lawrence is picking it up, playing a tough minded defense off the ball. I would say he should have been off the ball already, but so it goes.
THEN: Lawrence was the main ball handler; if he was in trouble, it was DJ Kennedy who brought the ball up. Which, as previously stated, was an adventure.
NOW: Malik Boothe has been a revelation, inspiring chants of BOOOOOOOTHE from the home partisans. He is a slick ball handler and miles beyond the other Storm players; he passes, he probes, he presses the defense with speed.
THEN: Larry Wright played 15 minutes.
NOW: Though his playing time may have spiked due to Mason's injury, Larry Wright has proven his fans right with heady play, hitting the open shot with the quick release, driving in the lane, and playing decent defense. He has even brought the ball up court once or twice.
THEN: Burrell, though an obvious beast, often did not get the ball in a position to do damage.
NOW: Burrell has been vocal and getting his shots, even if he is not as accurate as one might like him to be. But his athleticism and scoring ability—especially that money shot from just inside the three-point arc—has made Justin a real threat.
In the news, Cincinnati has found their second scoring option in John Williamson. He will be a beast down low.
The Cincinnati Enquirer has a statistical preview of tomorrow’s game… focusing on the bettors. For those of you who like to lay money on young adults playing ball, St. John’s is 7-4 against the spread on the road.
The team has improved. How far they have come will be seen on Wednesday night, ESPN (2).