For the first game of 2012, St. John's (7-6, 1-1 in the Big East) returns to the refurbished Madison Square Garden to face the top-15 ranked Louisville Cardinals (12-2, 0-1 Big East). The game will be part of a doubleheader, with Siena and Iona meeting up after the Red Storm/ Cardinals game.
Both teams are coming off of a loss to a nearby rival. St. John's lost to the Connecticut Huskies, 83-69 in Hartford on Saturday/ New Year's Eve. Despite the loss, the Red Storm hope to bottle to good performances and aggressiveness from a number of players and channel it toward a win.
At the same time in Lexington, Louisville lost to the Kentucky Wildcats, 69-62, in a foul-filled, poor shooting game. The Cardinals lost their second in a row after coming in undefeated, 12-0. They hope to stop their slide and win on the Garden stage.
Mike Dunlap continues to lead the Johnnies in Steve Lavin's absence, and the Johnnies hope to recapture the defensive success they enjoyed against Providence at Carnesecca Arena a week ago.
Preview of the Cardinals, Keys to the Game, and predictions, below the fold.
Mood Music: Ed OG and the Bulldogs, I Got to Have It (video, opens in new window)
Tip Off: 7:00 PM, Eastern
Vs: #11/10 Louisville Cardinals (11-2, 0-1 Big East)
Location: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
TV: ESPNU Radio: Bloomberg 1130 | Sirius: 94 | XM Radio: 190
Opposition blog/ message board: Card Chronicle | U of L Card Game
Pomeroy page ($)
From the Archives/ Time Machine
St. John's has gone 2-4 against Louisville since the Cardinals joined the Big East in the 2005-06 season.
The 2011 graduating class's first match against the Cardinals: 1/26/2008: Louisville cruised to a 67-57 win at Freedom Hall in Kentucky, dropping St. John's to 1-6. The final score was not indicative of how St. John's was crushed, especially in the first half, which ended 35-20 score.
Last Year: 1/19/2011: St. John's ended over a third of their possessions with a turnover (34.7%, 25 miscues) on their way to an 88-63 loss at the KFC Yum! Center.
Last time at Madison Square Garden: 2/11/2010: St. John's showed glimpses of how good they could be when they forced turnovers and got into transition, blasting the Cardinals 74-55.
Storm Warnings: St. John's
The loss to Connecticut came with some positives, including the team's fight until the end, the aggressiveness (especially after halftime), and the possible emergence of Sir`Dominic Pointer's offense. God`sgift Achiuwa continues to show his face-up outside-in game. And the Johnnies kept the Huskies off of the offensive glass for the most part (but the Huskies didn't miss many shots, which is a factor). Amir Garrett and Phil Greene seemed to defend well at the top of the St. John's zone.
But on the other side, Connecticut scored easily and often. St. John's best offensive stretches were rendered moot by UConn's sharp offense. St. John's forced some turnovers, but weren't able to capitalize with points in transition. And the Red Storm took 41% of their shots outside of the arc, not their strength.
Storm Warnings: Louisville
The Cardinals are coming off of a pair of losses, against Georgetown and Kentucky. Ranked as high as 4th in the country (last week), Louisville has big hopes that their depth and pressure can take them to another Final Four.
But injuries have been a factor. The Cardinals are working in forwards Jared Swopshire (groin tendon + bone injury) and Rakeem Buckles (torn ACL), both coming off of injuries from last season. Forward Stephan Van Treese is out with a left knee injury. Freshman wing Wayne Blackshear still hasn't debuted for the Cardinals, recovering from a shoulder injury that may have him out all season. Guard Mike Marra is out after tearing his ACL against Lamar. Peyton Siva missed two games with a concussion.
But that depth has been a boon to Rick Pitino's squad. The team actually starts two walk-ons in Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith, allowing them to carry a few more scholarship players who don't see much time despite all the injuries. The injuries haven't hurt Louisville. Occasional scoring inconsistency - and a need for more creative offensive options - has.
Playing a Pitino team, the Johnnies know what they're going to get - full-court pressure, trapping, mixed up defenses, waves of effort designed to wear the Red Storm down.
On offense, look for Kuric and Smith to hunt for deep shots, for jumpers and drives from Buckles, for post play from Dieng, and for shot-hunting from Russ Smith and Peyton Siva - who can be wild, but can heat up from all over the court. Kevin Ware could fall into the shot-hunting category, but has not had a lot of time on the court.
This will be the first game in Madison Square Garden for New York guard (Archbishop Molloy) Russ Smith.
Rick Pitino, when asked if Smith was going to try to do too much in his return home: "What's Russ gonna do? Take more shots? How can he?" Pitino added, "if Russ went down to the YMCA he would try to take every shot."
Did we mention he loves shots?
Russ Smith:Putting up shots::Cookie Monster:Eating cookies.
Cardinal Strength: Nearly incessant pressure defense. Pitino's style is well-known. High-energy pressure, turnovers forced, transition baskets. This year's Cardinals team forces opponents to turn the ball over on 26% of their possessions, 11th in the nation. The ability of the bigs to run and get back means that even when a team thinks it has broken the trapping defense for a clean shot, a player like Gorgui Dieng is trailing, ready to bother the shot from behind... and sometimes from ahead.
Their defense powers their offense; and the entire Louisville team can switch to their offensive positions very quickly. Phil Greene and D`Angelo Harrison have to be decisive with their dribble, and the team has to be cognizant of where they're passing when trapped.
Cardinal Strength: Offensive rebounding. When Louisville misses shots (and they do miss some shots), the trio of Gorgui Dieng, Chane Behanan, and Rakeem Buckles are there for putbacks. They're decent in the halfcourt, but on the secondary break, they can be deadly. All players need to be responsible for blocking out Louisville players.
Cardinal Weakness: Offensive lulls/ halfcourt mediocrity. Louisville's halfcourt offense often looks uncomfortable. And players, from the guards to the forwards, will often fall in love with the mid-range or deep jump shot when under defensive pressure. In the interest of jump starting the offense, Pitino will have Siva and Smith try to drive and create, which sometimes ends with one of the guards looking up from the hardwood, wondering why everyone's running the other way.
Strong fundamental defense can force long stretches of missed shots; stopping drives outside of the charge circle is key when the guards and wings have the ball.
Cardinal Weakness: Sloppy + overexcited defense at times. The Cardinals can be a little too close for the refs' comfort. Both Dieng and Russ Smith come close to the foul limit... in around 20 minutes.
The Five Points, or, Keys to the Game
Make Louisville play in the half court. Louisville has shooters, and they have post players. But they are much more deadly in transition with their length. St. John's has to get back when the Cardinals break and make them use clock, slow the pace.
Do not turn the ball over. Long passes are the enemy. So is sloppy ballhandling, and not recognizing a coming trap. The Cardinals look to create chaos, and a well-organized, careful-handling Storm can frustrate them. A note: since the Fordham game (the first game without Nurideen Lindsey), the Red Storm have committed an average of 8.3 turnovers (an average of 12.7% of their possessions), which is excellent.
Make outside shots. The Red Storm are going to need to create outside shots to free up space inside. They may not be threes; deep mid-range makes from Moe Harkless and D`Angelo Harrison will help too. But the Johnnies have to find ways to score.
Flip the Pitino game plan. The Red Storm will look to do some trapping themselves, and try to force ballhandlers like Siva and Smith into miscues... and some transition buckets for the home team.
Defend the perimeter. Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith will be looking for their shots after poor games against Kentucky. They can be deadly with open looks, and must be defended. Peyton Siva can be a decent shooter off the catch, and Russ Smith can get hot. Even Chane Behanan can hit from outside.
Prediction: The Cardinals could be upset, but their depth and experience vs. the Red Storm's lack of depth and lack of experience will more likely do them in. 71-61, Louisville.