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St. John's defensive learning curve

The culprit is the 3, but what it does do is it makes teams one dimensional. They're trying to beat you one way, ultimately.... We can do better of course in our schemes, but this a brand new team and it's not an every-man defense. It takes awhile to pick it up. - Associate Head Coach Mike Dunlap

As Quinn alluded to in yesterday's pregame UMBC article on the Rumble, the Red Storm's second half comebacks are beginning to look like a bad, bad habit.

The St. John's defense has struggled, putting the team into a early holes in wins against William & Mary and Lehigh. Despite the 2-0 record, the defensive results really have to give the Red Storm faithful pause.

What's going wrong?

Sebastian Pruiti of Hoopspeak (he also analyzes NBA x's and o's for sites including Basketball Prospectus, The Basketball Jones, along with being published by the New York Times and on SB Nation) has analyzed the Red Storm defensive issues, and I think he's on point.

Below the fold, some reflections on his findings, and how the defense gets better from here.

First, go and read Pruiti's analysis of St. John's defensive struggles. He illustrates the problems with a number of videos and photos of sequences from the first two St. John's games, pointing out three issues:

  • Late rotations
  • Gaps in the middle of the zone
  • Over-gambling for steals

He's on point here. The players aren't reacting as quickly as they could to the ball movement, acting on their responsibility in defensive situations late, and closing out on shooters when they've already cocked back for another three point try.

One of Pruiti's videos:

Pruiti also points out that extending the zone has left gaps in the middle of the defense; and that when the players gamble for a steal and lose, it leaves the defense struggling to cover ground with four men, instead of five.

Compared to last year...

Last year's team struggled in the first eight games learning the zone. They had some good games in the Great Alaska Shootout. But until the Davidson game and the second half of the Northwestern game, the defense seemed incapable of controlling a game. (Note that last year, the Red Storm allowed over 37% shooting from outside the arc all year AND in BE play... so don't mistake last year for some sort of lock-down defense on outside shots.)

In early-season losses to St. Mary's and Fordham, the zone also left some gaping holes, leading St. Mary's Clint Steindl to his career-high 22 points, mostly on corner three-pointers. He was the recipient of slow rotation.

Fordham got to the spots they wanted to shoot from repeatedly against the Red Storm in the loss at Rose Hill. Even Columbia enjoyed some success from the outside.

There have always been gaps in the zone.

This year, though, St. John's is playing a faster pace in the early going than last year's first eight games - about 67.5 possessions/ game this year to 66.9 in last year's first 8 games. And St. John's is facing (allowing?) a higher percentage of three-point attempts - 51.3% of opponents' shots have come outside the arc this year, compared to 41% in the first eight games. 

Add more possessions and more perimeter looks, and that's meant 9 more three point attempts.

And two more three-pointers made per game.

Luckily for St. John's, the two opponents shot 34.4% (William & Mary) and 30.8% (Lehigh), far less than the shooting percentage allowed in last year's first 8 games (39%) from beyond the arc.

Judging by yesterday's press conference, this is a big concern for the St. John's staff. Yes, the opponent is limited to outside shots. But those shots are worth a point more than the ones taken inside the arc. So hit enough threes, and St. John's needs many more twos and free throws to stay with opponents.

The Red Storm's defense inside the arc has also left a bit to be desired, allowing 54.5% from two-point territory, so the holes in the zone - and the defensive rebounding - have to improve as well.

Improvement on the horizon?

It's not an easy scheme to learn. The players have to react and anticipate to ball movement, have to trust that they're not leaving spaces open behind them, and have to know their assignments like it is second nature. That comes in time; and it's a very young team.

Last year, the defense improved with time and practice. Even if the defensive numbers weren't stingy, the team controlled a good number of games with extended pressure and energy, creating turnovers and points.

Improving on the gambling will be trickier. Nurideen Lindsey and D`Angelo Harrison don't come to St. John's with strong fundamental defensive reputations. They and Sir`Dominic Pointer are often the gambling culprits on the edges of the zone (though every player has had a high-risk, no-reward moment). They can get better; Dwight Hardy wasn't much of a defender before last season, and the staff made him adequate. 

Once Harrison and Lindsey improve their gambling tendencies from "junk bonds" to "treasury bills", they'll create some excitement going the other way. It may not be perfect, but it'll be functional like Hardy last year; both players should have a lot of value on offense to offset their defensive mistakes. Though the Johnnies may want a defensive shot-blocker/ eraser on the back line for more help.

An addendum: the lack of bodies on the roster keeps the Red Storm from going all-out on defense. If the three missing recruits were in the fold, we would see players much less worried about saving themselves for the second half.

And while tomorrow's game against Maryland-Baltimore County may provide an easy, less stressful win, the Red Storm will have some bumps in the learning curve. Defense takes time, but the staff and players sound dedicated to improving on that side of the ball.


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