St. John’s enjoyed a second half feast against the Sacred Heart Pioneers before heading west for a pair of matchups against Phoenix-area hoops programs.
First is the game against Grand Canyon Antelopes out of the Western Athletic Conference. In their first year of full NCAA Division-I eligibility - meaning, they can qualify for the NCAA Tournament after five years of provisional status - the Antelopes hope to keep a string of 20-win seasons going.
Dan Majerle’s team, playing near their home arena where they enjoy heavy fan support, will try to get their biggest program win against a streaking St. John’s team. The Antelopes will be playing their first non-home game - but are only seven miles from their campus.
The Johnnies, missing guard Marcus LoVett for at least tonight, hope to attack the Antelopes with pressure and start their west coast swing on a positive note.
With the late start, St. John’s has to remember to start with defensive intensity and offensive crispness.
Who: St. John’s Red Storm (7-1) versus Grand Canyon Antelopes (5-1)
When: Tuesday, December 5th, 11:30 PM ET
Where: Talking Stick Arena (Phoenix Suns home stadium), Phoenix, AZ
Audio: 970 WNYM AM
Last meeting: This is the first meeting between the teams.
Scouting Grand Canyon
The Antelopes are striving for respect in their fifth Division I season, all under former NBA guard Dan Majerle. The ‘Lopes have had some big wins over the Mountain West’s San Diego State (twice) and the better teams in their conference (Cal State Bakersfield and New Mexico State), but they have never beaten a foe in a perennial multi-bid league.
Grand Canyon won 27 games in 2015-16 and 22 games in 2016-17, playing aggressive man-to-man defense that forced turnovers and kept opponents from shooting three-pointers. This season, the Antelopes are only allowing opponents to take 28% of their shots beyond the arc, and are holding opponents to 26% shooting from deep and 43% shooting inside.
The team forced turnovers on 26% of opponent possessions, eighth in the nation (St. John’s is currently third on a per-possession basis.)
Then again, the best opponent the Antelopes have run up against were the San Diego State Toreros, who beat GCU by 10 points on November 25th.
On offense, the Antelopes have had some struggles. They turn the ball over on 21% of their possessions (260th in the country), have not shot threes very well (31%), despite taking many from outside the arc, and tend not to seek offensive rebounds.
Dan Majerle commented after their last win over UC Riverside that “our post game is nonexistent,” and noted the team’s struggles against zone defense.
Talent-wise, St. John’s should be a step faster than the Antelopes and a touch stronger - but they will need to watch out for the three-pointers.
Grand Canyon player notes
GCU has tended to look for three-pointers, led by senior guards Joshua Braun and Casey Benson. Both guards are locals. Benson, the starting point guard, transferred in from Oregon, where he has not yet found his deft shooting stroke from his Pac-12 days. He has gone 0/10 from beyond the arc in the last two contests.
Senior Shaq Carr has served as mostly a passer and defender, having taken only six shots on the season.
Freshman center Roberts Blumbergs is 6’10” but plays as more of a stretch-four, shooting 60% of his shots from beyond the arc. He is only shooting 19% on three-pointers.
Forwards Keonta Vernon is a very good rebounder on both ends at 6’6”; he is more of a driver than a post player. Gerard Martin (6’7”) and Matt Jackson (6’8”) - both Australians - log minutes and look to be threats from outside the arc. Italian Alessandro Lever (6’10”) is a freshman who can rebound a little and shoots from distance as well. Kerwin Smith will also get some run as a rebounding forward who seeks his offense at the rim off of drives.
Oscar Frayer, a sophomore wing, has blossomed in his second year. He has score on nearly 60% of his shots inside the arc, is deft at stealing the ball despite being 6’7”. He has struggled with fouls in his last three games. Fiifi Aidoo is a Finnish guard/ wing who came with some fanfare; he’s a talented athlete with hops who has struggled to find his outside shooting stroke.
Keys to contest
Make them shoot under pressure: St. John’s cannot allow Joshua Braun or Casey Benson to calmly set up for shots. The same active defense the Red Storm have played all year - now led by Justin Simon and Shamorie Ponds - will serve them well. The guards have been turnover-prone, as well, and this should benefit St. John’s.
Attack first: Starting with Ponds, the Johnnies will want to try to get inside and test the Antelopes’ interior defense. Bashir Ahmed should have some chances to show off what he can do.
Watch the fouls: St. John’s only has eight players, and chasing a team filled with perimeter-shooting forwards could cause problems for the Red Storm.
St. John’s will handle their business, 77-62.