There is palpable excitement for St. John's Game #7, a nationally-televised contest against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor in Durham, NC on Saturday afternoon on ESPN 2.
They even have the #4 RPI in men's college basketball! The season, of course, is less than a month old, so that #4 is no kind of cue to book tickets for appropriate regional NCAA first-round sites.
But it is interesting, a stir of echoes, an early burst of relevance. And a cause for momentary excitement. maybe this year St. John's can compete with Duke on the court. Maybe the Dukies are adjusting to play without Gerald Henderson and Greg Paulus. Maybe the Red Storm shock the Saturday afternoon college basketball-watching country (or "America" as they say on your favorite reality-TV shows).
Just maybe, this newly confident and deep Red Storm squad won't take "L" for a result anymore.
Game Preview: Facts & Responses
Fact: St. John's is 6-0.
Simulated Talking Head Response: They're back!
Analysis: Slow your roll. I love this team but I'm a realist. This game doesn't really speak to whether this team will be competitive in the Big East or not, especially if they lose. If they win, it's a HUGE win, a program changer. But if they lose, it's a loss; winning the rest of the non-conference games, which are winnable (though dangerous) is more of a barometer of where this team is. A loss doesn't mean anything is over - it just means the team has to shore up some deficiencies in offense and most likely, turnovers + offensive carelessness.
Fact: Duke is coming off of a 73-69 loss at Wisconsin.
Simulated Talking Head Response: Oooh, snap! Duke coming off a loss is a dangerous cobra, coiled in the corner, ready to strike!
Analysis: St. John's has gotten them off of a loss the past two years. While some like to make a big deal of the emotional response of Duke coming off of an L, it's not like they're facing Michigan State next, or Villanova. If they lose, they probably have some serious problems. If they win, it's not that they have corrected the problems that got them in the loss at Wisconsin - defensive rebounding, a lack of turnovers forced, and an inability to stop the Badgers' Travon Hughes.
Fact: Duke is considered unathletic and soft.
Simulated Talking Head Response: Duke might be surprised by the athletes of St. John's!
Analysis: While DJ Kennedy has had some very good games against the Blue Devils, Duke is not without athletes, and certainly without talent. Maybe all of those McDonald's All-Americans (Scheyer, Thomas, Singler, Smith, Plumlee) shouldn't have been All-Americans. But they are pretty fair athletes. Interestingly, Scheyer has not had any strong (20+ point) scoring games against the Johnnies in the last 2 years. And the "lack of athleticism" didn't help the athletic U Conn Huskies, who lost to Duke in one of the most boring games I have ever seen.
Fact: Duke has a lot of talent.
Simulated Talking Head Response: Duke is just SO deep...
Analysis: Yet they play 8 players. While I think Ryan Kelly will dust off his splinters and get some run in this game, it's curious that there are three scorers on this team, and a wealth of tall role players. Hopefully, the Plumlees won't just go off on the Red Storm after I write this.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America
You can fight with Duke. They are thin at guard, so you know what you're going to get on the perimeter - Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith, young Andre Dawkins. And while Singler can handle the ball, the team's depth leans heavily inside. The Blue Devils allowed some pretty sharp shooting from the Badgers, who were not to be mistaken for a crisp, perimeter-oriented team.
Guard: Jon Scheyer is one of the best players in college basketball right now and deserves respect. Against Wisconsin, he deferred to Singler and Smith but had a poor performance - with a shot percentage (SH) of 13% and an effective field goal (eFG) percentage of 28%.
Last year against St. John's, Scheyer shot 3 of 8 - not much better - but kept going to the line (especially as St. John's was trying to extend the game). He has a free throw rate (FTR) of 49.3% and an otherworldly offensive rating (ORtg), 143.2. I still think that's got to be a typo.
Smith is a guard with good size and solid overall ability; he is very eager to put up shots in the Blue Devils' offense, trying to take on Gerald Henderson's role with some success. At 28.9% of shots, he's not shy. Andre Dawkins has shot the hell out of the ball in the early going, and went 4-4 from the field - all three pointers - taking 13% of the shots in his 22 minutes.
Wing: Kyle "Shampoo" Singler is a matchup problem. He's tall, mobile enough to do his job defensively, and a scoring threat all over the floor. It will be interesting to see if DJ Kennedy is assigned to bother him, or if Burrell and Evans play him; Justin Brownlee's defensive abilities on the perimeter have not been used. Perhaps we will see if he has some defensive ability.
Forward: The Dukies are tall up front, with the young but effective Plumlee brothers, Brian Zoubek, Lance Thomas, and Ryan Kelly up front. Aalong with Zoubek and bench player Ryan Kelly, the Plumlees create a tower of power that will be very hard to score over. That's three McDonald's All-Americans there, though they don't score like one assumes an All-American would. Miles Plumlee has been a very good defensive (25.3%) and offensive rebounder (12.4%) and shot blocker (6.6% block percentage), befitting his size and reputation.
St. John’s (6-0)
Photo below by Red Storm Sports
DJ Kennedy (125.2 ORtg, 25.4% of possessions) has been the undisputed star of the team, scoring effectively in a variety of ways and building confidence in his offense. The second fiddle would be Sean Evans, with his ability to get fouled (61.9 FTR) and pick up offensive boards (18% OReb). Guard Dwight Hardy (111.8 ORtg, 40.7% 3pt made, 24.7% of shots) has also scored a bit, but as a whole, the team has not had enjoyed a crisp performance on offense since Siena. Kennedy will need some help against Duke.
Guard: A big issue is the lack of impact offense from Paris Horne and, to a lesser extent, Malik Boothe. Unlike the first part of last year, Boothe isn't making plays going to the basket, and his assist rates are down (16.6% compared to 24.7% last year) from an unspectacular level; his turnovers have remained high (27.2% of possessions). At this level of offensive performance, he needs to be more of viable offensive threat that draws defenses (so he can pass to an open shooter).
Horne's says he is pressing (85.8 ORtg, 23% of shots, 20% turnover rate); and he needs to be a factor against Duke. His straight-line drives to the hoop leave him vulnerable for aware defensive teams who draw offensive fouls, though, so Duke may not be the slumpbuster. Malik Stith (16.6% of possessions, 13.4% of shots) has some scoring ability but has not made a large impact yet. Maybe he will have his Carolina family in the stands - he went to high school in Charlotte, though he grew up in Hempstead, LI.
Wing: DJ Kennedy will make plays, without question. But he needs his teammates to step up as well. Justin Brownlee posted a nice game, and has been a good forward off the bench (123.2 ORtg, 16.7 DefReb, 11.8 OffReb). We haven't seen many of his drives at the basket yet. Backup Quincy Roberts hasn't logged many minutes. Freshman Omari Lawrence has logged some minutes in each game, and is proving to be a decent playmaker (18.3% assist rate), even if his shooting has been off (40.4% eFG).
Forward: Besides the aforementioned Evans, there haven't been strong track records - or possessions taken up - by the frontcourt. At forward, Justin Burrell had a decent game last night, and looked more willing to attempt his jump shot. That bodes well for the future, but can he shoot over Lance Thomas and Zoubek? Evans has been a rock; his brand of whirling dervish post chaos could be a factor to thinning out that Duke front line. Dele Coker made a low post move last night that was effective and precise. If he can stay out of foul trouble, he could log some minutes, especially as a shot-blocking specialist (17.5% block rate). Rumor has it that Rob Thomas could return on Saturday. His strength and tenacity under the hoop can help ugly up the game for the Red Storm.
Keys to the Game:
Give Yourselves a Chance. Value the basketball. Space correctly. Don't turn the ball over as much. Concentrate on making the right pass.
You Ain't Got No Alibi - Ugly. Whether the pace is slow or semi-fast, St. John's has to make this a frenetic game for stretches. At their best this season, the Red Storm have caused confusion, stifled shots, and caused turnovers (while often making mistakes in ballhandling themselves). A sloppy game put the onus on Duke's defense. When there is a turnover by Duke, that possession needs to culminate in points scored. When there is a scrum at the glass, St. John's has to come out with the basketball. When a Blue Devil drives to the hoop, he needs to be met with resistance.
The Rediscovered Jump Shot. Certainly, Burrell/ Evans/ Kennedy have the ability to draw a number of fouls on the Duke defenders and put up points at the free throw line. But to really hang with Duke, St. John's will need to rediscover the jump shooting that started the season. Whatever they do - this team needs to open up the court spacing and put some points up.
Do Not Foul Stupidly. They don't get to the line particularly often, so make them work for their foul shots. You know the dumb fouls - the forward who bumps Jon Scheyer on the perimeter, causing Scheyerface to erupt and floppy hands to fly.
Two Outta Three Ain't Bad. Two of Scheyer, Singler, and Smith need to have a poor game for St. John's to win this thing.