St. John’s has gotten off to a nice start this season. Entering Friday’s contest, the Red Storm are 8-1. They have some solid victories over Nebraska and Central Florida, have proven that they can win running away and can win ugly, and have done a strong job stifling interior scoring.
Their road bout with Arizona State proves to be the most immense challenge so far this season. Securing a victory over the Sun Devils should prove the propel the Johnnies into further NCAA Tournament discussion. In fact, ESPN’s latest bracketology did not even include St. John’s.
It’s still early, and a win or loss to Arizona State does not make or break the Red Storm’s postseason possibilities.
But a win without star guard Marcus LoVett (unlikely to play) would vault Chris Mullin’s Red Storm into the national conversation and raise the confidence that though this team has some flaws, they have the right makeup to be a force in the Big East.
Tonight in downtown Los Angeles, in the Staples Center, the Red Storm find out just how high they can fly.
Who: St. John’s Red Storm (8-1) versus #16/ #17 Arizona State Sun Devils (7-0)
When: Friday, December 8th, 8:00 PM ET
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: Pac-12 Network (check 7-day trials of FUBO TV and Sling as viewing possibilities)
Audio: 970 WNYM AM
Announcers: Steve Lavin & ted Robinson (TV); John Minko, Brian Mahoney (Radio)
Last meeting: St. John’s defeated Arizona State in the 2010 Great Alaska Shootout.
Scouting Arizona State
The Arizona State Sun Devils are undefeated at 7-0, having exploded into the national rankings. The team earned their ranking with a standout, gritty performance at the Las Vegas Invitational, with a comeback win against Xavier (where 40-point scorer Tra Holder and the rest of the team could not miss) and a high-scoring game against Kansas State, where they hung on at the end.
The Sun Devils’ other five wins were at home, against a mix of solid mid-majors and weak low majors. Overall, the Devils have won by an average of 19 points per game (or 14 points per 100 possessions).
As it is for St. John’s, this game may be the team’s biggest test to date.
On offense, Bobby Hurley’s team gets buckets in bunches. The team can shoot from outside the arc (connecting on 42% of their attempts), are dominant inside the arc (61% shooting on two-pointers) and are feasting at the line (56% ratio of free throws attempted to field goals attempted). ASU also turns the ball over on 16% of their possessions, 21st best rate in the country.
The scoring is well-distributed, with two high-scoring, efficient guards, a senior wing who is an athlete who has found a reliable stroke and a pair of newcomers to the post who have been extremely good at rebounding, shot blocking and post scoring.
Right now, the Sun Devils look to have no cracks.
But the Sun Devils have played only one team that likes to pressure the ball - Kansas State.
Underlying the ASU record are some eyebrow-raising defensive numbers.
Overall, the Sun Devils have been mediocre at defense - they force turnovers at a high rate, but there seem to be a lot of gaps for opponents to work through. Opposing teams are assisting on 62% of made shots (314th in the country) and attempting a lot of threes (45% of their shots, 336th in the country) while making them at a 37% clip.
One of the general tenets to good college basketball defense is keeping opponents from shooting outside the arc, and ASU does not do a good job at that.
The offense is so good that this has not been a loss-causing problem. But if the Red Storm can find the outside shooting stroke, this game could be a burst of guard-flavored entertainment.
Did we mention that ASU goes only seven deep? With transfers from last season, an injury and a player waiting until the second semester to be cleared to play, per NCAA transfer rules, the Devils play iron man basketball, much as the Johnnies do.
Did we mention that the starting guards are 6’1”, like St. John’s guards are?
ASU has some worries about the Red Storm’s defense. From House of Sparky;
To prepare for their perimeter [defense], ASU head coach Bobby Hurley went unorthodox in Wednesday’s practice.
“I’m very impressed with the effort and the energy they have on defense,” Hurley said. “We had some situations today where we put a sixth defender out on the court just to run around and try and trap and make it a little more chaotic because they scramble very well on defense. They rotate very well and have great athletes.”
ASU player notes
We have avoided naming names, but Los Angeles native (and possible Shamorie Ponds long-lost relative?) Tra Holder (#0) has been incredible as a high-usage senior guard. He takes care of the ball, makes solid passes, shoots 50% inside the arc, 49% from outside the arc, 86% from the free throw line. He’s nearly a 50-40-90 club member, and scorched Xavier for 40 points.
Historically, Holder has struggled inside the arc, a career 43% shooter on two-pointers, but he has improved incrementally every year. This season, he has been ok at the rim, shooting 51%, but good on two-point jumpers, shooting 47%. He struggled a bit against Kansas State, shooting 2/8 from the field but drew eight foul shots.
Shannon Evans (#11), who transferred from Buffalo to stay with his coach, Bobby Hurley, when Hurley came to ASU, has blossomed as a senior, posting better numbers at a higher usage than he did at SUNY-Buffalo. Evans has been very good as a high-usage senior guard. He takes care of the ball, makes solid passes, shoots 42% inside the arc, 42% from outside the arc, 88% from the free throw line.
Backup guard Remy Martin (#1) has popped into the lineup like fine champagne. The first player off the bench, Martin, a 6’1” guard, has provided some steals against low-level opponents while shooting 61% inside the arc; he has shot 55% on two-point jumpers and 71% on layups.
The guard rotation is solid and can get steals. They are confident and talented, with the starters having both scored in double figures in every game. Both are willing to drive hard into the paint for scoring opportunities.
Can they contain St. John’s? How good will they be if St. John’s can break up their passing flow and make them second-guess their ball sharing?
Roster turnover has meant that newcomers Romello White (#23) and De’Quon Lake (#35) have had the paint all to themselves. And they have run with opportunity.
White, a 6’8”, 220 pound sophomore, has been solid on the defensive glass, but powerful on the offensive boards. He is a true post player, with some back-to-basket moves and a solid touch inside 10 feet. He’s shooting 77% near the rim, 69% overall, and has drawn more free throw attempts than he has taken field goals.
White draws nine fouls per game, which will be a major issue for the Johnnies tonight. He only shoots 57% from the line, but given the Red Storm’s proclivity to fouling, the damage to the personnel will be the real burden.
Junior De`Quon Lake, 6’10” and 225 pounds, is even more effective inside the arc, shooting 79% on his two-pointers. He also gets to the line at a high rate, and draws fouls at a high clip (drawing five fouls per game).
Both can block shots. Neither has been a true stopper on the defensive glass.
Freshman Vitaliy Shibel (#10) starts and plays some token minutes. Much of his attempted offense is from outside the arc, but he has shot 3/17 on threes in the early going, and has been prone to committing fouls.
Kodi Justice (#44) has a great name and has scored in double digits in every contest after his first two this season. His game has elevated as a senior, as he’s shooting 71% inside the arc and 48% from outside the arc; last season, he shot 43% inside the arc and 42% from distance.
Justice has been a solid team player - willing to put his body in for scores, solidly athletic, and able to take over. Against Kansas State, he scored a career-high 28 points to complement Holder’s and Evans’ combined off night (which were still good enough for 25 points).
Keys to contest
Maybe, just maybe, St. John’s has the kind of defense that can take ASU out of their game. Staying foul-free will be difficult, as will defending well enough to keep ASU from stepping into three-pointers, but there are some interesting matchups on the floor.
Stars in Hollywood. St. John’s will need a star performance from the entire team. Shamorie Ponds will need to score (especially from outside the arc) and the Johnnies need a low-turnover performance from Justin Simon. And defense, those two will need to bring the nastiness that Marcus LoVett has brought to the defensive end this season.
Out-do the big men. Marvin Clark II’s outside shooting could provide a nice matchup problem for the Sun Devil big men. Kassoum Yakwe might see some opportunities for offensive rebounds and drawing offensive fouls; Tariq Owens needs to keep doing that voodoo that he do, making passes to the inside hard, deterring shots without fouling, and out-working opponents on the glass.
Disrupt and slow. The Red Storm have done a strong job at making opponents slow down for stretches. Once settled into the flow of the game, St. John’s has to break up ASU’s offensive flow, make them shoot later in the shot clock and make them dribble and drive for shots.
Unfortunately, the paint will be the difference. At full strength, I think St. John’s would take out the Sun Devils. The guard matchup is fairly neutral, but the ASU big men bring post offense that the Red Storm could have trouble with.
If St. John’s can disrupt the passes inside and keep this a guard game, we like their chances. But chances are, the senior trio of Holder, Justice and Evans will find ways of getting the ball inside just enough to give ASU the 76-70 win.