The Kentucky Wildcats defeated the Red Storm, 81-59, on Thursday night in a game that was never in doubt. The Johnnies, without head coach Steve Lavin for the fourth game this season, were completely overmatched. But didn't we expect that?
The final score may not look good, but there are some encouraging signs for St. John's to take from this experience.
Most predictions approaching this game had St. John's at a disadvantage of anywhere between 15 and 25 points. The official Las Vegas betting line even had Kentucky as a 22.5 point favorite.
Thursday's 22-point defeat doesn't come as much of a surprise. In fact, there isn't much at all from this game that is surprising.
We've discussed time and time again throughout the first eight games the flaws that the Johnnies have and how they must overcome them. Kentucky, much like Arizona, Texas A&M, and Northeastern, found different ways to expose those weaknesses - as was expected.
If you look past the final score, the shot clock violations, the poor perimeter shooting, and that tree they call Anthony Davis, the Johnnies certainly have things to work with here - including their competitiveness and some positive signs for the defense.
See also: Anthony Davis and Kentucky knock around St. John's 81-59 (game recap).
More below the fold.
As much as it is nice to dream, the young Red Storm were never expected to invade Rupp Arena and bury the Wildcats. It just wasn't realistic. How did St. John's handle the experience, and what stood out?
They battled - After falling behind 16-5 at the 10:49 mark in the first half, St. John's was able to find some level of consistency. The offense committed five shot clock violations before halftime, so they were visibly uncomfortable. But in the last 10:49 of the half and the first 7:04 in the second half (17:53 in total), the Johnnies were only outscored by 4 points.
"They played us as well as anybody has played us, they really did. I've got to give them credit," Kentucky head coach John Calipari mentioned afterwards.
Facing a team with an incredible advantage in overall talent and height, St. John's held their own for about 28 minutes. In a game where the superior team pulled away in the last 12 minutes, it's hard to take much from analysis of the final stages of the game.
Gift's reemergence - The Christmas season is approaching, and it's that time of the year for gift-giving. The Johnnies' own God`sgift Achiuwa came to play Thursday. After four consecutive sub-par and generally discouraging performances, the Red Storm's lone interior presence accumulated 18 points and 10 rebounds in 38 minutes.
Gift's problem in previous games is that he seemed overly passive. Against Kentucky, a team with the largest front line St. John's has seen this year, Achiuwa looked as aggressive as ever. He attacked Davis or Terrence Jones straight-on and drew contact. Gift got to the line 9 times and will need to continue to seek those opportunities.
Phil Greene can play - It still remains to be seen if Phil Greene's offensive prowess is on the streaky side. In the games where he's shown positive signs, most notably the exhibition with C.W. Post, against Texas A&M, and Thursday, he has hit his shots in bunches. When Greene is shooting well, he is an extremely productive player because he can handle the ball and create shots off of the dribble.
If he can find some way to be more consistent, the question will be raised about Greene seeing more time as the floor general. St. John's doesn't have a true ball distributor, but Greene's handling might be the best they have.
Match-up zone was in-sync - It was the Red Storm's defense that was kept them within striking distance before the Wildcats pulled away. The patented Lavin zone was active, contested most shots, and caused 12 turnovers. Sure, Kentucky got some open looks as will always happen with this system. It's encouraging that St. John's held them to 5-16 (31.3%) from long-range.
There were instances where over-extension of the zone lead to easy alley-oops for Davis down low. But, let's face it. All of Davis' looks down low were easy. St. John's and its fans are tired of watching teams beat the Red Storm from the perimeter, as Northeastern did last Saturday. The defense will need to find a balance between defending the perimeter and the interior, which is tough to do with such thin depth.
St. John's will look to replicate these positives and improve on the negatives when they travel to Detroit for a tussle with the Titans on Monday night.
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