"Everybody in our locker room, from the players to the coaches, thought we could win. As you can see, in the first half, we came out and went blow-for-blow with [Pittsburgh]."
- DJ Kennedy after 90-67 loss Pittsburgh
Ah, but there's a second half.
In the Big East, many of the opponents come with big names, big named players with bright futures, and with future Hall of Fame coaches trying to dominate one another. And it is hard to scratch out wins against the behemoths for the hopefuls and the up-and-comers.
For St. John's, Jim Calhoun's 14-1 #4 Connecticut Huskies have been that behemoth, looming large and looking to step on the team's metaphoric neck.
It's been years since the heady days of beating U Conn for the Big East Championship; last year, the Huskies crushed St. John's 81-65 in a game that never felt that close. The Red Storm have not won against the Huskies since 2002, when Kyle Cuffe and Marcus Hatten worked against Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor. That was a LONG time ago in student cycles. That's almost an undergrad degree and a grad degree away.
Eleven Years of St. John's vs U Conn, a look at how the Red Storm used to challenge one of the best programs in the land. In this table, "tourney" stands for times when the teams met in the Big East Tournament. In this (admittedly arbitrary) period, St. John's has won 6 and lost 12 to the Huskies, including 7 in a row recently. Note that the 99-2000 St. John's team beat the Huskies three times, including in the league's championship game:
This season, the Huskies have one loss, to the Georgetown Hoyas. The Hoyas won while being slightly outrebounded and giving the Huskies one more attempt at the free throw line. But the Hoyas shot their free throws better, turned the ball over less, and - though you wouldn't know it by Hasheem Thabeet's 7 blocks - moved the focal point of the U Conn defense away from the basket with the threat of Greg Monroe's outside shooting and passing from the high post/ perimeter.
That's not a blueprint St. John's can really match with their personnel. After all, U Conn could simply play zone and dare St. John's to beat them from the outside with that ineffective 28% brick-shooting from behind the three-point line.
Outside of Thabeet, the Huskies are tall, efficient, and do all of their scoring inside of the arc like almost no other team in the country. Part of that is the dunk-a-tron offense of Thabeet; but Jeff Adrien scores inside as well. Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson are threats all over the floor. And the whole team will run and dunk when given a chance.
On defense, they don't force that many turnovers or press, because with Thabeet and their aggressive defense, they don't have to. Teams just don't score against the Huskies, though Cincinnati did have some success aggressively attacking Thabeet in the man to man and looking for offensive rebounds when the big man stepped up to block/ alter the shot.
Last weekend, the Red Storm showed some toughness in holding close with the Pitt Panthers for the first half. But the physical beating and the poor ballhandling gave Pittsburgh room to run up their advantage in the second.
The team hopes for good offensive performances from Sean Evans, DJ Kennedy, and Rob Thomas; some better ballhandling all around, but especially from Quincy Roberts and Malik Boothe if he plays; and more impact from Justin Burrell (whose back was bothering him), Dele Coker (whose size will be needed), and Paris Horne.
The current edition of the Huskies have the best big man in college, Hasheem Thabeet. He's turned himself into a credible offensive force and a dominant defensive force, altering any shot that comes near him. The Red Storm may have more to fear from the rest of the veteran squad - the aggressive scoring of Jeff Adrien and the long matchup problem that is Stanley Robinson in the frontcourt. The Huskies will also go smaller for periods, giving former Rice High School guard Kemba Walker some time to shine in front of friends and family. Jerome Dyson tied a team steals record with 9, and will look to play the passing lanes again.
AJ Price doesn't steal the ball as much as one would expect given his history, but is a solid defender and very good assist man. Of interest: more than half of Price's shots on the season have been from beyond the three-point line, where's he's hitting nearly 43%. Craig Austrie can be an effective scorer off of the bench. Stanley Robinson has been efficient, passing up three-point attempts and rebounding at slightly higher rates than last year.
PF 4 Jeff Adrien SR 6'7" 243lbs - 14.5 ppg/ 9.1 rpg/ 55.8% FG
G 11 Jerome Dyson JR 6'4" 190lbs - 14.1 ppg/ 3.6 apg/ 4.3 rpg/ 1.9 spg
C 34 Hasheem Thabeet JR 7'3" 263lbs - 13.5 ppg/ 10.2 rpg (3.3 OFF)/ 3.6 bpg/ 66.7% FG
PG 12 AJ LAPTOP Price SR 6'2" 181lbs - 10.1 ppg/ 4.5 apg/ 3.2 rpg/ 42.6% 3ptFG
F 21 Stanley Robinson JR 6'9" 210lbs - 6.7 ppg/ 5.3 rpg/ 57.1% FG
PG 15 Kemba Walker FR 6'1" 172lbs - 24.5 mpg/ 9.8 ppg/ 3.4 rpg/ 2.6 apg/ 1.3 spg
G 24 Craig Austrie SR 6'3" 176lbs - 24.8 mpg/ 8.7 ppg/ 2.0 apg
F 24 Gavin Edwards JR 6'9" 234lbs - 12.9 mpg/ 4.7 ppg/ 2.7 rpg
The size of Connecticut poses a matchup problem. Centers like Dele Coker and Phil Wait were brought in to contend with the size of Thabeet, but neither can stay on the floor for long. This game might be the one where Coach Norm Roberts brings Tomas Jasiulionis out of mothballs. If he and Coker can provide a few minutes of muscle and hang on to rebounds while keeping the beefy Huskies off the block, St. John's might have a better chance in this one. Of course, the next question is - who covers Stanley Robinson? DJ Kennedy gives up 3 inches, but is the most likely candidate outside of Sean Evans.
If Malik Boothe can't play, Quincy Roberts will once again play the point for the Red Storm. The freshman guard is still finding his way after the 14 point, 9 rebound effort of his first start was followed up by high turnover, low shooting percentage efforts. Coach Norm Roberts wants him to play with confidence; crisper passes and knowing when to pass will help with his psyche. TyShwan Edmondson has been underwhelming as his backup.
Kennedy showed some offense against a tough team, and the Red Storm will need his efforts, as well as a more aggressive offensive performance from Paris Horne. If Burrell's back is fine and can make some plays when he is singled up on offense, he has a chance to match his 17 point, 6 rebound performance last year.
G 10 Quincy Roberts FR 6'5" 190lbs - 5.8 ppg/ 2.8 rpg
G 23 Paris Horne SO 6'3" 185lbs - 12.4 ppg/ 3.1 rpg/ 2.2 apg/ 1.6 spg/ 1:1 A/TO ratio
G/F 1 DJ Kennedy SO 6'6" 210 lbs - 13.3 ppg/ 7.3 rpg (2.1 OFF)/ 2.6 apg
F 24 Justin Burrell SO 6'8" 240 lbs - 10.1 ppg/ 4.3 rpg/ 49.5% FG/ 55.6% 3PT/ 2.6 fpg
F 5 Sean Evans SO 6'8" 250 lbs - 10.3 ppg/ 6.7 rpg/ 52.5% FG/ 47.4% FT
F 55 Rob Thomas SO 6'6" 226 lbs - 6.2 ppg/ 3.5 rpg (2.1 OFF)/ 58.1% FG
C 15 Dele Coker SO 6'10" 260lbs 12.0 mpg/ 3.4 ppg/ 1.1 bpg/ 2.7 fpg
G 12 TyShwan Edmondson FR 6'4" 170lbs - 10.1 mpg/ 1:1.4 A/TO ratio
PG 3 Malik Boothe SO 5'9" 180 lbs - 8.4 ppg/ 3.6 rpg/ 5.0 apg/ 3 TOg/ 1.6 spg
Five Points -or- Keys to the Game
Don't Stop Believin' You Can Win. In these kinds of games, the maximum effort has to be there - especially at home in Madison Square Garden. Whether it is "playing hard," or paying attention to defensive assignments, the focus needs to be there against the experienced Huskies. And once again, it will feel like a neutral site game with all of the Husky fans from NY out to see their team put a beating on the Johnnies. If this game turns into a fast-paced race, St. John's will lose focus, get frustrated, and lose the game. This needs to be a controlled half court game.
Play To The Whistle. The Huskies pass well and St. John's players have to cover the gaps in their defense, and play until the refs yell to stop - no pausing when the players think a foul should be called. When the Huskies have a chance to pass and see open baseline lanes or wide open players... they will execute, making the shot and/ or drawing the foul.
Guard Against Thieves. The Huskies, while content to frustrate opponents in the backcourt, do have opportunistic and extremely athletic players. St. John's has to see the defense before making the pass, know where their man is, pass crisply, and pass with purpose. And players cannot dribble into trouble in the name of being aggressive. Possessions cannot end in turnovers if the Red Storm wants to have a chance. Fewer than 10 turnovers would be
Outside In. U Conn will keep the Storm outside in the man-to-man. The forwards have to screen well - no moving screens from Coker - and the guards have to come off the screens looking to attack the Husky forwards. On the other end, the point guard and Paris Horne have to make life miserable for the perimeter ballhandlers.
Fight for Rebounds. Thabeet and Adrien are imposing, aggressive forces. But Rob Thomas, Kennedy, and Sean Evans can be aggressive forces as well on the glass. Second chances will be key as always - St. John's must limit the other team's second chances and get more possessions for teammates.
Prediction: Connecticut 84, St. John's 65.
Also see: Player Breakdown, U Conn vs St. John's from the U Conn Huskies basketball blog.