The developing St. John’s team has a huge task ahead of them at home against the Villanova Wildcats, who have been in the top-five all season. The Wildcats were #1 before a loss on the road at Butler, but make no mistake. Jay Wright’s defending National Championships don’t show many flaws.
Meanwhile, St. John’s is coming off of a poor offensive performance, and are looking to get back on the development track.
“We're just looking to regroup,” Chris Mullin said yesterday of the effort in the last game, “get our energy and effort back.”
“It shouldn't be a problem motivating vs Villanova,” Mullin added. “They play a beautiful team game.”
No, motivation won’t be a problem. But all the motivation in the world won’t help the fact that the Villanova Wildcats are a team with an extremely effective style of play on both ends of the floor, lots of experience, and one of college basketball’s brightest stars complemented buy an excellent set of role players.
Gonna be a tough one for St. John’s... but that’s why they play the games.
Who: St. John’s Red Storm (8-10, 2-3 Big East) vs #3 Villanova Wildcats (16-1, 4-1 Big East)
What: Big East Conference game
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: 12:00 PM, Saturday, January 14th
TV: FS1/ FOX Sports Go app
Audio: 570 AM WMCA/ TuneIn Radio
Tickets: It’s a near-sellout, but you can try to get tickets here.
Last Meeting: St. John’s fell 73-63 at Madison Square Garden last February 13th.
Chris Mullin had this to say about the Villanova Wildcats' overall approach:
"Villanova is very consistent, very unselfish and very fundamental, setting good screens, hitting the open man. No matter what [defense] they play, they play it together. They beat you with their team."
Sometimes, it's just that simple.
The Wildcats play a tight rotation of eight players who trust each other, play fundamental defense - little reaching for steals - and commit the fewest defensive fouls in the country. Getting to the free throw line will be a chore, as will blocking their shots; their shooters have been blocked the fewest times of any squad this season.
The Wildcats have a star in Josh Hart, who might be national Player of the Year. Hart executes, scoring in double figures in every game this season - with a low of 12 points and high of 37 in an explosion over Notre Dame. And he can score on all levels, shooting 38% outside the arc and 65% inside the arc. Hart can force steals, doesn't turn the ball over, doesn't foul a lot, can rebound on the defensive end. He's a 6'5" machine that St. John's will need to keep in check.
Coming into the season, the questions surrounded the supporting cast, one that lacked size inside and took a hit with the ineligibility of center Omari Spellman. But the workmanlike combination of Darryl Reynolds and Mikal Bridges defend inside and rebound, with help from Eric Paschall - a 6'7" 250 pound versatile transfer from Fordham.
Kris Jenkins adds decent size inside on defense, but takes most of his shots from outside the arc, like this one you may remember to end last season:
Misty. What an end.
Ok, as we were.
Jalen Brunson plays point guard, and can get some buckets as well. An injury to junior guard Phil Booth has meant that sophomore Donte DiVincenzo has earned a lot of playing time, and has been sharp on both ends of the court.
Wildcats to watch
Kris Jenkins. Yes, Josh Hart is a likely Player of the Year. He’s going to do his thing. But in the loss to Butler, Kris Jenkins had an off shooting night, which gave the Bulldogs the opening to tough their way out to a win.
Jalen Brunson. Brunson, the point guard, is the team’s second-leading scorer and top assists man. But can he be slowed down? If he struggles, will the Wildcats need to create a little more on their own - enough to leave a crack in the defending champs’ armor?
Eric Paschall/ Bridges/ Reynolds. The big men for Villanova will see an opponent that has comparatively-sized interior players. While an opportunity for St. John’s, it’s also an opportunity for those players to get some points and take the attention off of Josh Hart and the other guards.
Keys to the contest
Defend without blocking shots or forcing turnovers. St. John's best defensive attributes are about length and theft. But Villanova is so sharp that if players find themselves lunging out of position for a highlight defensive play, the Wildcats will simply find the space and make the shot.
The answer? Sound defense, keeping the Wildcats in front, staying active and engaged, and not giving up easy shots.
Jay Wright knows that the guard-heavy Wildcats may not have the obvious advantages teams like Georgetown and Creighton had against the Red Storm. "Their length and athleticism has bothered us [in the past]," Wright said yesterday in the Big East's biweekly conference call. "We know we'll get challenged in the Garden."
Shoot with confidence. The 'Nova defense is excellent. But the St. John's scoring is very good, with guards who can make that long two-pointer off of the dribble that most players simply cannot. Here's Jay Wright, from the Big East conference call, on Ponds and LoVett:
"[Shamorie Ponds and Marcus Lovett] run good offense off ball screens, but are incredibly dangerous in transition situations and in broken play situations. Once they play breaks down, and they get in iso situations they're as tough to stop as anyone. Not many players are good at that anymore."
Those two will need to break down the Villanova defense, and other players will need to step up from outside the arc.
What St. John’s effort will we see? Will some of the complementary players step up? Can Bashir Ahmed get his offense going? That will determine the kind of game we will see - a close one, or a solid beating.
Rumble Prediction: 74-66, Villanova wins but St. John’s plays them tough.
KenPom Prediction: 82-69, Villanova, 87% chance of victory