In tonight’s matchup, the last of the Big Ten/ Big East challenge known as the Gavitt Games, the St. John’s Red Storm travel an hour or so away (rain/ snow notwithstanding) to face the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, hoping that a recent injury can be offset by the touted perimeter talent.
Rutgers is recovering from being in the proverbial doldrums, just like St. John’s — new coaching, new players, new shooting — and wants to pull a win that sends a little ripple through the hoops nation.
Local hoops makes for an extra spicy matchup, in a classic (aging?) arena that can be quite intimidating. Expect the fans and the media to be out in droves for this game. Any good or bad impression the Red Storm make to be loudly broadcasted.
Despite the slight advantage St. John’s is given by the oddsmakers (even with a major injury setback), this is a pressure-packed game. Chris Mullin and his team need to execute tonight.
Who: St. John’s Red Storm (2-0) vs Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2-0)
Where: Rutgers Athletic Center (8,000 capacity)
When: Friday, November 16, 7:00 PM
TV: BTN | BTN2Go (Corey Provus, Jon Crispin)
Audio: 970 WNYM | TuneIn Radio
Odds: St. John’s by -2.5
Last meeting: It was unofficial, but St. John’s lost to Rutgers at the RAC last season, 80-78. St. John’s is 7-3 in the teams’ last 10 meetings, with five of those games being decided by three points or fewer.
This game is part of the Gavitt Games between the Big East and the Big Ten.
Steve Pikiell formerly coached at Stony Brook in Suffolk County. Mikey Dixon for St. John’s and Peter Kiss were high-scoring teammates at Quinnipiac before both transferring up after their head coach was fired. St. John’s freshman forward Marcellus Earlington was high school teammates with freshman Ron Harper, Jr.
Rankings & School Notes
Last season final KenPom Ranking: 130 | Current KenPom Ranking: 118
School size: 68,942 (49,359 undergraduates)
School is academically known for: Being REALLY old (established in 1766. Older than our country, fellow Americans.)
Notable alumni: Paul Robeson (singer, actor, lawyer, civil rights advocate), James Gandolfini (actor), Milton Friedman (economist), Kristin Davis (actress), Mike Colter (actor), Fabian Nicienza (comics author), Dave White (award-winning mystery author), Roy Scheider (actor), James O’Keefe (provocateur/ video troll)
What the teams are saying about the matchup
“This is the most athletic team we’ll face this year. We’ve got to protect the ball.” - Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell
“I think we can cause a lot of havoc, offensively and defensively. We have to make that happen by being aggressive, unselfish, making sure we run off our misses, keeping our turnovers down, and grabbing rebounds.” - St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin
“When we play with our versatile, small lineup, we have to rebound the ball and be active, get deflections, and play to our strengths. We have to spread the floor out and put the other team in binds.” - Chris Mullin
“Especially if we play together and play fast, I think having a smaller lineup is definitely an advantage.” - St. John’s forward Marvin Clark II
“I think what’s changed for us is that we have a lot better passers. The passing has changed the shooting.” - Steve Pikiell
Scouting Rutgers returning scorers/ impact players
If St. John’s is to one day point to this as a redemption season, a get-back-on-track season, the team needs to start by winning the high-profile, major conference rivalry games. Also, they need to beat Rutgers.
This November, Rutgers has played Fairleigh Dickinson and Drexel, blowing both teams out. Neither of those squads are expected to be major players in their conference, but Rutgers did display some intriguing scoring, smoking the nets at a 56% clip from outside the arc and assisting on 60% of their made shots.
It’s hard to know what that will look like against a team like St. John’s, but that two game stretch cannot be discounted; a Scarlet Knights team that seemed to already pose a challenge because of their side have, on paper, the outside threat to make that challenge destructive to the Johnnies chances for a win.
The Knights focus around point guard Geo Baker, a second-year player who shot woefully inside the arc last year but still made passing and three-point plays. His ability to face the Red Storm pressure without turning the ball over will be key for the Scarlet Knights. He looks to have improved as a passer, and had an explosive 25 points against Purdue to end last season.
Peter Kiss, Mikey Dixon’s former teammate, has been touted as a major scorer for Pikiell’s squad in the back court. At 6’5” with fair athleticism, he can be bothersome in passing lanes and a strong shooter from distance. He’s also a good passer.
The real revelation has been 6’7”, 234 pound Eugene Omoruyi. Omoruyi shot 0/16 from outside the arc in his first two seasons and in two game this year... 6/7. Guess he was working on his shot for a pair of years. Coupled with the size to rebound against St. John’s on both ends and some defensive acumen as both a shot-blocker and a ball thief, Omoruyi is probably the Scarlet Knight x-factor on the win.
Also on the wing is Senegalese shooter Issa Thiam. Last season in the exhibition game, Thiam made his presence felt on the offensive glass, despite being a willowy-thin wing at 6’10”, 190 pounds. He’s more of a shooter than a forward, but he shot 38% from the three last season.
Freshmen Ron Harper Jr., Montez Mathis, and Caleb McConnell are all around 6’5”wings looking to continue their strong early-season impression. Mathis is the highest-rated incoming recruit; Harper is the son of an NBA player (and a teammate of St. John’s Earlington) who had five assists against Drexel; McConnell is a long and wiry wing.
Underlying that shooting, though, are a couple of questions: how will the Knights’ youth play? And how much of that Rutgers height is cancelled out by St. John’s height?
Without Sedee Keita — out 4-6 weeks recovering from knee surgery — the easy wisdom is that Rutgers will pound the paint.
But as of now, do they have paint-pounders? Freshman big man Myles Johnson has talent and soft hands, but he also didn’t use many possessions in the first two games of the season. Neither did the other bigs who played less time — Shaquille Doorson, Mamadou Doucore, and Shaq Carter.
Each of those bigs are a threat to crash the glass, and the Johnnies have to find a way to minimize that threat more than they truly need to triple-team in the post for more than show.
The matchup could look to be a number of similar 6’4” to 6’6” wings running up and down the court, trying to make plays. In that scenario, the Red Storm should have the advantage. But those big men are an x-factor.
Keys to the Game
Impose the pace. St. John’s, missing the size of Keita, needs to continue what they have done with their squad of wings — impose pace, pressure, and get out in transition. Rutgers could be difficult to handle for the Red Storm trying to score in the half court if the ball isn’t moving and the Knights are not on their heels. Watch for the willingness to pass, be patient and find space by Shamorie Ponds as the team leader to tell the tale.
Active rebounding. Rutgers should enjoy a size advantage — one that will create chances for them on putbacks. The Johnnies need to track the ball, clear Rutgers misses, and put their bodies in the way for the Knights’ size. Look for Marvin Clark, Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa to be the keys.
Few mistakes. The Johnnies need to play a crisp, cohesive game, with aggressive pressure defense and good finishing behind and inside the arc. Ponds and Justin Simon will need to lead the way, with a strong showing from Mikey Dixon on both ends.
Prediction: For St. John’s, does a win mean fans can start discussing seeding and where the best location for the Sweet Sixteen will be? Does a loss mean a boycott of a program forever? Its’ not that serious, but this game will tell us where the Red Storm really are in their development.
Now, with Keita out, we see some nervy moments, but in the end, a 76-72 win at the RAC.