This is the time of year when coaches start to say their players are no longer freshmen. Justifying that line of thinking, the St. John's Red Storm's (12-16, 5-10 Big East) did a solid job of closing out games against the DePaul Blue Demons and UCLA Bruins, executing down the stretch despite a pace meant to tire the short Johnnies' roster.
The short roster has had five days between games, the longest stretch of unbroken recuperation/ practice time since the Christmas-time break. The Red Storm are currently in sole possession of 11th place - and hoping to knock off Mike Brey's surprising Notre Dame team.
The Fighting Irish are 20-8 on the season, 12-3 in the Big East, and on a nine game winning streak that began with a home win over the then-undefeated Syracuse Orange. The Fighting Irish are playing for a double-bye in the Big East Tournament, and hope to get into a Garden rhythm for a deep run in the conference tournament.
"We're going to be back there in two weeks, so it's important for the whole team to play well," Jerian Grant said to the Chicago Tribune. "It's a bonus, just to be able to get in there and play a game and be back. If we get a nice rhythm in there, it will be good for us when the tournament comes."
A bonus? A nice rhythm? It sounds like the Irish are very confident that they will win.
Can the Red Storm disrupt the Irish's winning ways and build momentum for the Big East Tournament?
More, below the fold.
Mood Music: Aloe Blacc, "Tonight Downtown" (video, opens in new window)
(feeling more rock n roll? try Maps + Atlases "Living Decorations")
Tip Off: 12:00 PM, Eastern
Vs: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (20-8, 12-3 Big East)
Location: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
TV: ESPN | ESPN3 Radio: Bloomberg 1130
Last year's Garden drubbing of the Fighting Irish has little bearing on this year's results.
Both the Red Storm and the Irish were senior-laden teams last year, due for a lot of turnover. The Irish lost almost 50% of their scoring and nearly 50% of their minutes. Unlike the Johnnies, Mike Brey had some talent waiting in the wings. That talent has morphed into a winning combination, despite the loss of their best returnee, Tim Abromaitis, to a torn ACL in November.
The talent at forward was Jack Cooley - who was offensively excellent in limited time, but fouled too much to get on the floor ahead of more experienced options (and played too many video games, apparently).
And at guard, Jerian Grant impressed as a freshman but was redshirted because he'd only get spot minutes next to Ben Hansbrough and Scott Martin. He's emerged as an athletic and talented option next to returning point guard Eric Atkins.
Besides personnel, the other Irish change has been their spectacular defense. The Irish are holding teams to 25% shooting from outside the arc and 44.8% shooting inside the arc. And they will not foul to bail an opponent out.
At the heart of this is a well-coached team; the Irish get back on defense incredibly well, make opponents take tough shots, stay in defensive formation (i.e., don't break down), take charges, and force opponents into off-balance looks.
On offense, the team seems to have two stars in Cooley and Grant, but the Irish have incredible balance, good floor spacing, and complementary skills.
"The thing I think is remarkable is with [Eric] Atkins and Grant," Assistant coach Mike Dunlap said, "both are a different kind of players than the other guys on the team, but they play at a speed where they compliment the other players. The subtle things like that which coach Brey and his staff have done to highlight their strengths has been the difference."
They play a very slow pace (59 possessions per game in conference play - one of the slowest in the country). The pace is greatly aided by their ball control - they only turn the ball over on 17% of their possessions.
But within that pace, they can score in semi-transition with players like Grant spotting up in the corners and "they also pass the ball better than anybody in [the Big East]," in the words of Dunlap.
Don't mistake their deliberateness for an inability to put up points in a hurry. They can get offensively comfortable. And when they shoot in rhythm, they will put up points.
Irish plus: Balance. Notre Dame's starters will play 35 or so minutes (depending on foul trouble and Pat Connaughton's minutes), and no one will put up more than 25% of the team's shots. Which is to say that four out of the five players on the floor for Notre Dame is capable of getting a shot. They are all willing to pass to the open man.
With the exception of post player Jack Cooley and Pat Connaughton (whose role is as a spot up shooter), each player can drive the ball and either score or kick the ball out.
"They're hitting a lot of 3s and their big man catches everything," Sir`Dominic Pointer mentioned in the pregame, mirroring Dunlap's comments about the Irish's complementary skills. "They hit their open shots, so you can't leave them alone on the outside. They are doing the right things and playing their style."
Irish plus: Defensive organization. Mike Brey's team reacts well to transition play, to rebounds, and even to inbounds passes. The team tends to be in the right place, doesn't overplay badly, maintains defensive control over the other team, and hardly ever concedes the paint. Connaughton, Eric Atkins, and Grant can all disrupt passing with their length.
Irish minus: Rebounding. The Irish leave all their rebounding duties to Jack Cooley, who is a spectacular boardsman. But the rest of the team is of almost no help. That's improving, thanks to the defensive rebounding of Scott Martin and the scrappy Connaughton. Both are perimeter-oriented players, but will stick their noses in to grab a board - they have the size for it at 6'8 and 6'5, respectively. But don't expect to see them crash the glass, they'll be getting back in transition when they miss.
Irish minus: No bench. The Irish haven't gotten into foul trouble enough for this to be a factor, but it's obvious that Brey trusts about 6 players on the team - the five aforementioned starters (Grant/ Atkins/ Cooley/ Martin/ Connaughton) and the versatile Chicago-area native Alex Dragicevich. Joey Brooks, Mike Broghammer, and Tom Knight see spot minutes only in times of trouble, like lightning strikes and alien abductions.
Five Points/ Keys to the Game
Defend the middle. St. John's has to keep Notre Dame's penetrators out of the middle, and keep the ball from Jack Cooley. When Cooley gets the ball, defenses collapse, and the Irish get open for shots all around him. Cooley is particularly adept at getting open in sync with the perimeter ball movement. He will happily accept (and efficiently finish) a pass from a penetrating guard, as well. When the Irish can drive into the middle and make defenses collapse, they are destructive.
Scrapping. The Red Storm have to play hard - battling Notre Dame for rebounds, keeping them out of position, deflecting passes. Yes, the Irish have a scrappy basketball player who throws a 95 MPH fast ball... but so does St. John's in Amir Garrett (more on Garrett's baseball career from the Rumble).
Chaos. The Johnnies could use a game filled with transition play, turnovers, roughness - the kind of game where the Storm's athleticism wins over the Irish's skill. The Irish may overlook St. John's for a period of time and oblige them with loose play; if and when that happens, St. John's has to take advantage. The window where a speed game is allowed could be short.
Foul differential. The Red Storm, at their best, get to the line frequently, driving into the paint and winning battles down low. The Storm have find ways to attack the Irish and get shots from the free throw line. That will have the double effect of getting Notre Dame into foul trouble.
While attacking, St. John's has to be mindful of their positioning in transition, and continue to protect themselves against foul trouble. The players who draw the defensive assignments in the matchup zone against Jack Cooley's quickness, aggressiveness, and brawn and Jerian Grant's quickness and athleticism have the most to worry about.
Prediction: Notre Dame takes this one, 69-60.