The Johnnies (2-1) will face off against NCAA powerhouse Michigan State (2-2) in the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis [see our tournament preview for more information]. This will be St. Johns first-ever appearance in the Battle 4 Atlantis and this will only be the third meeting between these two programs and the first since 1979.
Especially with both teams led by youth and athleticism, there’s a good chance that this will be a fairly fun game to watch, if St. John’s can impose some fast break offense on the Spartans, while not giving up too much on the other end.
St. John’s transfer Marvin Clark, Jr., will be able to see his old teammates from the sidelines - and hopefully deliver some scouting insight on the Spartan players. But St. John’s has to step up their performances to deliver a competitive game, and hopefully a win.
Who: St. John’s vs. Michigan State Spartans
Where: Imperial Arena, Paradise Island, Bahamas
When: Wednesday, November 23th, 7:00 PM ET
TV: AXSTV; there is a seven-day free preview of Sling TV that you can sign up for, which carries AXS.
Audio: St. John’s TV All-Access will provide free audio for the contest. That station can be found by clicking here. Also live game audio can be found on 570 WMCA.
Twitter: Follow @rumbleSBN and @StJohnsBBall for updates.
Last Meeting: St. John’s beat Michigan State 88-73 in the final of the season-opening Lapchick Tournament in December, 1979. That Michigan State team went 12-15 on the season, the year after winning the national championship behind Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who had moved on a pretty decent NBA career.
Scouting Michigan State
The Spartans came into the season boasting one of the toughest November schedules in all of college basketball. They began the season by falling to Arizona in a nail-biter of a 65-63 loss. The schedule did not do them any favors from their as they had to compete against the John Calipari’s Wildcats. This contest was not nearly as close as they fell 69-48 to Kentucky.
Guard play will be a key to this game as the Spartans are more seasoned at the position with senior guard Eron Harris and junior guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. Nairn, a native of the Bahamas, has not been a scorer this season, averaging two points per game - but he has handed out five assists per contest and is a very good guard. Meanwhile, Harris has averaged 15 points per game and dropped 31 against Florida Gulf Coast; he’s shooting 60% from beyond the arc this season.
The true star so far has been dunking freshman Miles Bridges, a 6’7”,230 pound preseason All-American as a freshman, according to the Sporting News. Bridges has averaged 16 points and nine rebounds on the young season with a versatile inside/ outside game.
That said, the Spartans lack some experienced size inside. Bridges is the team’s tallest starter, and the other tall regular is freshman Nick Ward, who has been very good so far in the absence of veterans Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling.
The Spartans play a slower, deliberate pace and have defended the three-point line very well - opponents don’t get off many shots from the outside, though when they do, they have shot 37% from distance; FGCU shot 47% from the perimeter.
The Spartans come in with a great reputation, but the early season has shown youthful flaws, a lack of height, and some errors in ballhandling. Can St. John’s capitalize?
Scouting St. John’s
The new look Red Storm have been impressive this season on offense, and their five new additions have paid immediate dividends for the team. The Johnnies will be traveling to the Bahamas sporting the second-highest scoring average in the Big East with 87.7 points per game.
The freshman backcourt of Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett has shined this season and both offensively and defensively. Entering Wednesdays contest against Michigan State, the two are the highest scoring duo in all of the Big East with 41.6 points per game so far this season.
LoVett is currently leading the Big East in points per game with 24.3, that is also good enough to crack the top 20 in all of college basketball. He is also coming off of a 31 point game from Friday’s loss to Minnesota.
But the defense has had some issues, which were highlighted in the loss to Minnesota last Friday.
Michigan State is looking for a win to help their young core develop into a dangerous Big ten team; St. John’s is looking for a win to make the nation take note of their star freshmen and developing talent base. Either way, in a strange venue in the Bahamas - a converted ballroom - magical and mysterious things can happen, right?
What to watch
Next-level defense: How will St. John’s guards respond to the defense of Michigan State? The Johnnies need LoVett and Ponds to score and score big. Expect the Spartans to key in on those players - at least until other players can be steady scoring threats. Can LoVett and Ponds find scoring opportunities? Can they score in bunches, get three-pointers off? And when they are covered, can Federico Mussini and Malik Ellison step to the plate?
Turnovers or...? The Johnnies did a decent job in the first two games of applying pressure against opponents with traps and full-court pressure. That pressure was absent against Minnesota, and even worse, the team made mistakes in ballhandling that gave players like Amir Coffey easy, uncontested layups at the other end. As a slim but athletic team, St. John’s needs to define what their defense looks like starting with this effort - how will they defend when not applying pressure? How will they defend in a slower-paced period of the game?
Attacking the rim: Given the size of the opposition, St. John’s could have opportunities at the rim with the offensive rebounding of Tariq Owens, the athleticism of Kassoum Yakwe, the quickness of Yankuba Sima and the attacking talent of Bashir Ahmed. But how will that mesh with the scoring guard play, which has been essential to the St. John’s attack? This week is a chance for the Johnnies to diversify the attack, and for frontcourt players to step up their game.
Despite losing on Friday, this contest against the Spartans will undoubtedly be their toughest test to date. The Spartans looked sharp after dropping their first two games of the season after posting back to back wins over Mississippi Valley St and Florida Gulf Coast.
A win would be a statement for the Red Storm on the young season against a nationally respected program and a perennial national championship contender.
St. John’s drops a close one, 77-72. What’s your prediction?